is a microscopic living organism, which may be single-celled or multicellular. The study of microorganisms is called microbiology, a subject that began with the discovery of microorganisms in 1674 by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, using a microscope of his own design.
Microorganisms are very diverse and include all bacteria, archaea and most protozoa. This group also contains some species of fungi
, algae, and certain microscopic animals, such as rotifers. Many macroscopic animals and plants have microscopic juvenile stages
. Some microbiologists also classify viruses (and viroids) as microorganisms, but others consider these as nonliving. In July 2016, scientists reported identifying a set of 355 genes from the last universal common ancestor
of all life, including microorganisms, living on Earth.
Microorganisms live in every part of the biosphere
, including soil
, hot springs, "seven miles deep" in the ocean
, "40 miles high" in the atmosphere
and inside rocks far down within the Earth's crust (see also endolith). Microorganisms, under certain test conditions, have been observed to thrive in the vacuum of outer space. According to some estimates, microorganisms outweigh "all other living things combined thousands of times over". The mass of prokaryote microorganisms — which includes bacteria and archaea, but not the nucleated eukaryote microorganisms — may be as much as 0.8 trillion
tons of carbon
(of the total biosphere mass, estimated at between 1 and 4 trillion tons). On 17 March 2013, researchers reported data that suggested microbial life forms thrive in the Mariana Trench. the deepest spot
in the Earth's oceans. Other researchers reported related studies that microorganisms thrive inside rocks up to 580 m (1,900 ft; 0.36 mi) below the sea floor
under 2,590 m (8,500 ft; 1.61 mi) of ocean off the coast
of the northwestern United States, as well as 2,400 m (7,900 ft; 1.5 mi) beneath the seabed
off Japan. On 20 August 2014, scientists confirmed the existence of microorganisms living 800 m (2,600 ft; 0.50 mi) below the ice of Antarctica. According to one researcher, "You can find microbes everywhere — they're extremely adaptable to conditions, and survive wherever they are."
Microorganisms are crucial to nutrient recycling in ecosystems as they act as decomposers. As some microorganisms can fix
nitrogen, they are a vital part of the nitrogen cycle, and recent studies indicate that airborne microorganisms may play a role in precipitation and weather. Microorganisms are also exploited in biotechnology
, both in traditional food and beverage preparation, and in modern technologies based on genetic engineering. A small proportion of microorganisms are pathogenic, causing disease and even death in plants and animals.