Microbiology deals with the study of microscopic life forms. It is a wide subject that branches out to many sub-fields. However, for the sake of this brief history of microbiology, we will look at microorganisms related to the food industry.
What is microbiology?
Microbiology is the study of microscopic organisms such as bacteria, fungi, algae, and the infectious agents at the borderline of life such as viruses. The study encompasses microbiological characteristics such as form, structure, reproduction, physiology, classification, and metabolism.
Microbiology further looks at:
- their distribution in nature,
- relationships with each other and other living organisms, and
- their effect on plants and animals.
History of Microbiology
Microbiology is a very old subject. The first person to postulate the existence of microorganisms was Aristotle in 4 B. C. He suggested that living organisms are made up of cells.
It was only until 13th century when people realized that ground pieces of glass provided a greater magnifying power. They were able to see tiny objects that they could otherwise not see through their naked eyes.
Following these developments, Roger Bacon postulated that invisible living creatures cased diseases.
In 1530, Fracastoro of Verona coined the term syphilis to describe an outbreak that ravaged Europe in the 1400’s when the returning French soldiers spread the disease.
He called the disease agent ‘seminaria morbi‘ (living germs) that spread ‘contagium vivum’ (via contact with an individual with the germ).
In 1658, Athanasius Kircher defined the invisible organisms found in decaying bodies, meat, milk, and secretions as worms.
In 1665, Robert Hooke made a powerful compound microscope that he used to confirm Aristotle’s postulate that living beings comprise repeating units of cells. That same year, an Italian named Francisco Redi confirmed that maggots are the larval stage of flies.
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek made powerful lenses in 1676 that could magnify up to 3000µm (*300) – 3mm size.
In 1765, Lazzaro Spallanzani boiled meat in hay infusion and covered the broth in an air-tight container. Bacteria could not grow for a longer time.
Later in 1810, Nicholas Appert discovered that bacteria could not grow in foods in air-tight cans. His method of preservation became popularly known as appertization and later as canning.
In 1861, Louis Pasteur confirmed that air contains microorganisms when he cultured cotton wool that he had used to filter air. Louis also discovered the widely popular pasteurization method of food preservation.
Here is the timeline infographic showing a brief history of microbiology.
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Whenever the name of bacteria is heard, a bad thing is almost always implied. Bacteria are synonymous with diseases, poisoning, and even death.
As studies on microorganisms continued, the scientists discovered that not all bacteria were harmful. There are also very many beneficial bacteria.
Some of the benefits of microorganisms include:
- Production of antibiotics to treat diseases affecting man, animals, and plants. Bacteria can also act as biological pesticides in organic farming.
- Probiotics are used to create longevity products such as yogurts and other fermented products.
- Bacteria can produce enzymes used in food production/processing. Some cleaning products and dyes rely on bacterial enzymes.
- In the food processing industry, bacteria is used to make vinegar from alcohol.
- Bacteria play a vital role in maintaining a balanced environmental ecosystem. For instance, nitrogen fixing bacteria help plants harvest nitrogen from the air to improve productivity.