What is it?
Ecological and microbial systems involve the interactions of species with each other and with their environment. The interactions may be affected by environmental contaminants and/or may be used by humans for productive purposes.
How we use it?
Large-scale microbial processes such as composting use mixed cultures in stable or sequential consortia determined by their environments. Even large industrial bioreactors producing enzymes, fuels and antibiotics effectively operate as ecologies rather than pure cultures due to genetic drift and low-level contamination. Biological processes in nature such as nitrogen fixation, and those designed by humans to work with nature such as habitat restoration, bioremediation, green walls for air, and integrated pest management, involve interactions among species ranging in scale from microbes to redwoods. Engineers focusing on microbial and ecological systems study these interspecies interactions, design them into systems which produce useful products and preserve the environment, and monitor ecosystems to preserve their stability in the face of population growth and climate change.
Engineering careers in microbial and ecological systems may be found in hydroponics, biofuels, food processing, management of pests and invasive species, and sustainable waste processing including advances in composting and anaerobic digestion. Engineers in this area may develop microbial consortia to decompose contaminants or render them harmless, to promote plant growth and disease resistance, or to help replace chemical pesticides and herbicides. In future, the design, monitoring and construction of ecosystems will grow in importance as Earth and its multiple populations adjust to climate change and water scarcity.