Science of Microbiology
People have long wondered about the microscopic world of bacteria and viruses. While some societies made a connection long ago between microbes and diseases, it wasn’t until the invention of the microscope that the study of microbes became its own science. The microscope was one of several discoveries that advanced the science of microbiology. Over time, microbiology developed through improvements in two areas: laboratory techniques; and an understanding of how microbes function and interact with their environment, including causing disease.
Throughout the history of microbiology, many people have been involved in key discoveries. These scientists, called microbiologists, often specialized in one or more areas of microbiology. As this science became more detailed, the branches of study increased as well. In addition to studying each type of microbe, scientists focus on how microbes function, reproduce and interact with their environment. They also investigate the practical applications of microbes in medicine, agriculture, industrial processes and other areas.
Important Microbe Discoveries
Because microbes cannot be seen with the naked eye, many of the most important discoveries in microbiology are techniques for making indirect observations of microbes and their activities. The first use of the microscope, in the late seventeenth century, to observe microbes in a drop of lake water sparked the science of microbiology. Other techniques that advanced microbiology include isolating and growing microbes in the laboratory, and using sterilization procedures to kill unwanted microbes.
Throughout much of its early history, microbiology focused on two areas: fermentation and medicine. The medical discoveries, in particular, have received more recognition. This is mainly because of their direct benefits to people. Important medical discoveries include the development of vaccines to provide the body with immunity to viruses, and the creation of antibiotics that can kill bacteria that cause disease. More recently, scientists learned how to study and manipulate the genetic information of microbes. This field of microbial genetics continues to have important potential for medicine, agriculture and industrial applications..
Even before the invention of the microscope, people speculated about the existence of tiny creatures not visible to the naked eye. Some of these early ideas made a connection between these unseen organisms and disease. With the development of the microscope, scientists could finally explore the invisible world of microbes. Several important ideas about the nature of microbes, however, were not fully developed until the late nineteenth century.
In the fourth century BC, Aristotle proposed that in addition to sexual and asexual reproduction, organisms could appear suddenly from inanimate matter. He called this theory, spontaneous generation. This idea persisted for quite some time, especially in connection to microbes. Louis Pasteur proved through a series of carefully designed experiments that bacteria did not grow from nothing, but came from other bacteria. At about the same time, scientists were exploring the specifics of how microbes cause disease, known as the germ theory of disease.
Key People and Institutions of Microbiology
Many scientists played important roles in the development of microbiology. One of the first was Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutch drapery merchant, who used an early microscope to view pond water, thus initiating the study of microbes. Louis Pasteur advanced microbiology by disproving the theory of spontaneous generation and developing methods of vaccinating against viruses. Robert Koch, who promoted growing single types of microbes on solid gelatin-like material, provided the final evidence showing that microbes caused disease. The work of Alexander Fleming in the early twentieth century with the antibiotic penicillin signaled the start of a new era in medical microbiology.
In addition to individual scientists, many institutions have played a role in the history of microbiology. Much of medical microbiology involves treating sick people, as well as preventing the diseases from spreading throughout a population. Government agencies, such as the World Health Agency and the Centers for Disease Control, are heavily involved in helping people stay healthy and dealing with outbreaks of disease. This includes monitoring the spread of infections like influenza and AIDS, as well as identifying dangerous new microbes, such as ebola and bacteria resistant to antibiotics.
Branches of Microbiology
Microbiology is the study of microbes. Because there are so many types of microbes living on the planet, this field offers many possible areas of study. Each type of microbe is the focus of its own type of microbiology. This includes bacteria, fungi, protozoa, algae, parasites and viruses. Scientists can also specialize in how microbes interact with the immune system, or any other number of medically-related specialities.
Rather than focusing on one type of microbe, scientists can also study broad topics within microbiology. This includes studying the structure, genetics or physiology of microbes. Or looking at how microbes interact with their ecosystems, such as a pond or the human body. Scientists may also study how microbes have changed over time, in what is known as evolutionary microbiology.
In spite of their size, microbes are extremely useful creatures. They have many applications within the world of medicine and beyond. Medical microbiology looks at how microbes cause disease, as well as the development of treatments. Industrial microbiology involves the use of microbes for processes such as fermentation and wastewater treatment. Food and agricultural microbiology explores how microbes affect the growing and production of food.
Microbes are also used in genetic engineering, which is the changing of an organism’s DNA to alter how it looks or functions. This activity falls under the specialty of microbial biotechnology. This field includes medical applications, as well as agricultural and energy uses. For example, plants and animals can be altered at their genetic level to be resistant to disease, or to produce more meat or nutrients.