What is Diagnostic Microbiology?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Diagnostic microbiology is a specialty in the sciences which focuses on applying microbiology to medical diagnosis. Like other microbiologists, diagnostic microbiologists tend to work in a lab environment which allows them access to a variety of equipment which they can use to identify and study the organisms they encounter. People in this field can work in labs which handle diagnostic testing for hospitals and clinics, and they can also work in research and development, helping to develop new diagnostic techniques and treatments for microbial infection.

Microbiology is sometimes applied to medical diagnosis.
Microbiology is sometimes applied to medical diagnosis.

Microbes such as bacteria, protozoans, and fungi play a role in many disease processes. When a patient presents with a condition which is caused by an infection, the doctor usually wants to determine which organism is responsible so that the best treatment can be selected. A diagnostic microbiologist takes a sample collected from the patient and cultures it to see what grows, returning results to the doctor.

Microbiologists may gather water samples to test for harmful microorganisms.
Microbiologists may gather water samples to test for harmful microorganisms.

In addition to being involved in the identification of a disease-causing organism, diagnostic microbiology can also be a part of developing a treatment plan. Many microbes have developed resistance to medications, for example, so a microbiologist might be asked to test various medications with the cultured organism to find the most effective treatment. A clinical microbiologist can also be asked to look for signs of multiple infectious organisms, or to provide insight into the pathology of the infection.

A microbiologist may use Petri dishes to study bacteria.
A microbiologist may use Petri dishes to study bacteria.

Diagnostic microbiology can also be applied to epidemiology. Clinical microbiologists are usually involved in the early stages of tracking and studying epidemics, to identify the organisms involved, find connections between them, and help to develop an approach to stop the epidemic and treat people who have been infected. Their skills are also put to use to determine who belongs in the epidemic and who does not, using their diagnostic skills to trace infections as they spread and to distinguish between people with ordinary infections and people caught up in an infectious epidemic.

People who work in the field of diagnostic microbiology usually have extensive training. The nature of the training can vary, depending on where the scientist works. Lab technicians who culture and identify routine specimens, for example, tend to have less training that people who are working as epidemiologists who handle new and unknown organisms while confronting a public health threat. People interested in careers in diagnostic microbiology field should plan on taking a lot of science and math courses.

Working in diagnostic microbology usually requires extensive training.
Working in diagnostic microbology usually requires extensive training.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


To do the work of a Clinical Microbiologist, you have to have a bachelors degree in clinical laboratory science, biology, or microbiology with a license from the American Society of Clinical Pathology.

There are two sides to diagnostic microbiology. One requires the license to handle patient samples. The second does not because it is to confirm diagnosis for public health cases.


What are the benefits of being a diagnostic microbiologist?


So what kind of educational background do you need to be a diagnostic microbiologist? Would you have to pursue a doctorate degree or would a Masters in Microbiology suffice?


@Charred - Yes, that would be correct. I can’t imagine anyone else working on the blood sample. As to your reference about people who didn’t go on to become doctors choosing this profession, I don’t think it would be something they would do by default.

I imagine there would be a good degree of specialization and that they would have to study a textbook of diagnostic microbiology much as a premedical student would have their texts on medicine, physiology, etc.


I didn’t realize that diagnostic microbiologists even existed – I just lumped everything done in the medical profession under one umbrella.

It seems that this would be kind of bridge profession for someone with a background in Biochemistry – perhaps who had majored in it – but didn’t go on to become a doctor. They may have just specialized in diagnostic microbiology and infectious diseases.

So if I understand correctly, when I go to the doctor to complain about feeling ill and he decides to take a blood sample and send it to the lab, the diagnostic microbiologist does the work?

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