What Is Microbiology?

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Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history of microbiology. We have more microbes in our bodies than we have human cells. We fear them as the cause of disease, yet are reliant on them for processes as diverse as water purification, pharmaceuticals, bread-making and brewing. In the future, we may look to them to save the planet from environmental hazards as scientists exploit their ability to clean up pollution. For microbes are the great recyclers on the earth, processing everything – plants, animals and us. Without microbes life would grind to a halt. How did we first discover these invisible masters of the universe? The development of microscopes in the 17th Century played a key part, but for a while science seemed stuck in this purely observational role. It is only when Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch began to manipulate microbes in the lab two hundred years later that stunning advances were made. These breakthroughs led to an understanding of how microbes transform matter, spread disease and also prevent it with the development of antibiotics and vaccines.

Listen to the In Our Time episode on Microbiology

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Short Article of the Day

Most of us considered microbes little more than nasty germs before science recently began turning our view of the microbial world on its head. A “microbe” is a bacterium and any other organism too small to see with the naked eye. After decades of trying to sanitize them out of our lives, the human microbiome – the communities of microbes living on and in us – is now all the rage. And yet, some insist that we can’t really call microbes “good.” That’s nonsense.

Of course no one thinks microbes can be morally righteous. They don’t have intentions – good or bad. But it is fast becoming clear that certain microbial communities are vital to our individual health and that of our crops. Most of them either benefit us or do no harm most of the time...

Continue reading David R. Montgomery's article: Microbes: Our Tiny, Crucial Allies

Further Reading

The existence of microorganisms was hypothesized for many centuries before their actual discovery. The existence of unseen microbiological life was postulated by Jainism which is based on Mahavira’s teachings as early as 6th century BCE. Paul Dundas notes that Mahavira asserted the existence of unseen microbiological creatures living in earth, water, air and fire. Jain scriptures describe nigodas which are sub-microscopic creatures living in large clusters and having a very short life, said to pervade every part of the universe, even in tissues of plants and flesh of animals. The Roman Marcus Terentius Varro made references to microbes when he warned against locating a homestead in the vicinity of swamps "because there are bred certain minute creatures which cannot be seen by the eyes, which float in the air and enter the body through the mouth and nose and thereby cause serious diseases."

In the golden age of Islamic civilization, some scientists hypothesized the existence of microorganisms, such as Avicenna in his book The Canon of Medicine, Ibn Zuhr (also known as Avenzoar) who discovered scabies mites, and Al-Razi who gave the earliest known description of smallpox in his book The Virtuous Life (al-Hawi). In 1546, Girolamo Fracastoro proposed that epidemic diseases were caused by transferable seedlike entities that could transmit infection by direct or indirect contact, or vehicle transmission. In 1676, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who lived most of his life in Delft, Holland, observed bacteria and other microorganisms using a single-lens microscope of his own design...

Continue reading the Wikipedia article on Microbiology

Bonus Webcomic

Related Topics

If you’re interested in microbiology, check out some of the following related topics for more resources:

 Astrobiology | Biotechnology | Immunization | Pandemics

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