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An agar plate streaked with microorganisms Agar plate with colonies.jpg
An agar plate streaked with microorganisms

Microbiology (from Ancient Greek μῑκρος (mīkros) 'small', βίος (bíos) ' life ',and -λογία ( -logía ) 'study of') is the scientific study of microorganisms, those being unicellular (single cell), multicellular (cell colony), or acellular (lacking cells). [1] [2] Microbiology encompasses numerous sub-disciplines including virology, bacteriology, protistology, mycology, immunology, and parasitology.


Eukaryotic microorganisms possess membrane-bound organelles and include fungi and protists, whereas prokaryotic organisms—all of which are microorganisms—are conventionally classified as lacking membrane-bound organelles and include Bacteria and Archaea. [3] [4] Microbiologists traditionally relied on culture, staining, and microscopy. However, less than 1% of the microorganisms present in common environments can be cultured in isolation using current means. [5] Microbiologists often rely on molecular biology tools such as DNA sequence based identification, for example the 16S rRNA gene sequence used for bacteria identification.

Viruses have been variably classified as organisms, [6] as they have been considered either as very simple microorganisms or very complex molecules. Prions, never considered as microorganisms, have been investigated by virologists, however, as the clinical effects traced to them were originally presumed due to chronic viral infections, and virologists took search—discovering "infectious proteins".

The existence of microorganisms was predicted many centuries before they were first observed, for example by the Jains in India and by Marcus Terentius Varro in ancient Rome. The first recorded microscope observation was of the fruiting bodies of moulds, by Robert Hooke in 1666, but the Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher was likely the first to see microbes, which he mentioned observing in milk and putrid material in 1658. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek is considered a father of microbiology as he observed and experimented with microscopic organisms in the 1670s, using simple microscopes of his own design. Scientific microbiology developed in the 19th century through the work of Louis Pasteur and in medical microbiology Robert Koch.


Avicenna postulated the existence of microorganisms. Avicenna TajikistanP17-20Somoni-1999 (cropped).png
Avicenna postulated the existence of microorganisms.

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 (599 BC - 527 BC). [7] :24 Paul Dundas notes that Mahavira asserted the existence of unseen microbiological creatures living in earth, water, air and fire. [7] :88 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. [8] 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." [9]

Persian 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). [10]

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. [11]

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723). Natuurkundige te Delft Rijksmuseum SK-A-957.jpeg
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723)
Van Leeuwenhoek's microscopes by Henry Baker Van Leeuwenhoek's microscopes by Henry Baker.jpg
Van Leeuwenhoek's microscopes by Henry Baker
Martinus Beijerinck is often considered as a founder of virology Martinus Willem Beijerinck in his laboratory.jpg
Martinus Beijerinck is often considered as a founder of virology

In 1676, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who lived most of his life in Delft, Netherlands, observed bacteria and other microorganisms using a single-lens microscope of his own design. [13] [2] He is considered a father of microbiology as he used simple single-lensed microscopes of his own design. [13] While Van Leeuwenhoek is often cited as the first to observe microbes, Robert Hooke made his first recorded microscopic observation, of the fruiting bodies of moulds, in 1665. [14] It has, however, been suggested that a Jesuit priest called Athanasius Kircher was the first to observe microorganisms. [15]

Kircher was among the first to design magic lanterns for projection purposes, so he must have been well acquainted with the properties of lenses. [15] He wrote "Concerning the wonderful structure of things in nature, investigated by Microscope" in 1646, stating "who would believe that vinegar and milk abound with an innumerable multitude of worms." He also noted that putrid material is full of innumerable creeping animalcules. He published his Scrutinium Pestis (Examination of the Plague) in 1658, stating correctly that the disease was caused by microbes, though what he saw was most likely red or white blood cells rather than the plague agent itself. [15]

The birth of bacteriology

Innovative laboratory glassware and experimental methods developed by Louis Pasteur and other biologists contributed to the young field of bacteriology in the late 19th century. Albert Edelfelt - Louis Pasteur - 1885.jpg
Innovative laboratory glassware and experimental methods developed by Louis Pasteur and other biologists contributed to the young field of bacteriology in the late 19th century.

The field of bacteriology (later a subdiscipline of microbiology) was founded in the 19th century by Ferdinand Cohn, a botanist whose studies on algae and photosynthetic bacteria led him to describe several bacteria including Bacillus and Beggiatoa . Cohn was also the first to formulate a scheme for the taxonomic classification of bacteria, and to discover endospores. [16] Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch were contemporaries of Cohn, and are often considered to be the fathers of modern microbiology [15] and medical microbiology, respectively. [17] Pasteur is most famous for his series of experiments designed to disprove the then widely held theory of spontaneous generation, thereby solidifying microbiology's identity as a biological science. [18] One of his students, Adrien Certes, is considered the founder of marine microbiology. [19] Pasteur also designed methods for food preservation (pasteurization) and vaccines against several diseases such as anthrax, fowl cholera and rabies. [2] Koch is best known for his contributions to the germ theory of disease, proving that specific diseases were caused by specific pathogenic microorganisms. He developed a series of criteria that have become known as the Koch's postulates. Koch was one of the first scientists to focus on the isolation of bacteria in pure culture resulting in his description of several novel bacteria including Mycobacterium tuberculosis , the causative agent of tuberculosis. [2]

While Pasteur and Koch are often considered the founders of microbiology, their work did not accurately reflect the true diversity of the microbial world because of their exclusive focus on microorganisms having direct medical relevance. It was not until the late 19th century and the work of Martinus Beijerinck and Sergei Winogradsky that the true breadth of microbiology was revealed. [2] Beijerinck made two major contributions to microbiology: the discovery of viruses and the development of enrichment culture techniques. [20] While his work on the tobacco mosaic virus established the basic principles of virology, it was his development of enrichment culturing that had the most immediate impact on microbiology by allowing for the cultivation of a wide range of microbes with wildly different physiologies. Winogradsky was the first to develop the concept of chemolithotrophy and to thereby reveal the essential role played by microorganisms in geochemical processes. [21] He was responsible for the first isolation and description of both nitrifying and nitrogen-fixing bacteria. [2] French-Canadian microbiologist Felix d'Herelle co-discovered bacteriophages in 1917 and was one of the earliest applied microbiologists. [22]

Joseph Lister was the first to use phenol disinfectant on the open wounds of patients. [23]


A university food microbiology laboratory LUA, Faculty of Food Technology Food microbiology laboratory.jpg
A university food microbiology laboratory

The branches of microbiology can be classified into applied sciences, or divided according to taxonomy, as is the case with bacteriology, mycology, protozoology, virology, phycology, and microbial ecology. There is considerable overlap between the specific branches of microbiology with each other and with other disciplines, and certain aspects of these branches can extend beyond the traditional scope of microbiology [24] [25] A pure research branch of microbiology is termed cellular microbiology.


While some people have fear of microbes due to the association of some microbes with various human diseases, many microbes are also responsible for numerous beneficial processes such as industrial fermentation (e.g. the production of alcohol, vinegar and dairy products), antibiotic production and act as molecular vehicles to transfer DNA to complex organisms such as plants and animals. Scientists have also exploited their knowledge of microbes to produce biotechnologically important enzymes such as Taq polymerase, [26] reporter genes for use in other genetic systems and novel molecular biology techniques such as the yeast two-hybrid system.[ citation needed ]

Bacteria can be used for the industrial production of amino acids. Corynebacterium glutamicum is one of the most important bacterial species with an annual production of more than two million tons of amino acids, mainly L-glutamate and L-lysine. [27] Since some bacteria have the ability to synthesize antibiotics, they are used for medicinal purposes, such as Streptomyces to make aminoglycoside antibiotics. [28]

Fermenting tanks with yeast being used to brew beer Cuves de fermentations.jpg
Fermenting tanks with yeast being used to brew beer

A variety of biopolymers, such as polysaccharides, polyesters, and polyamides, are produced by microorganisms. Microorganisms are used for the biotechnological production of biopolymers with tailored properties suitable for high-value medical application such as tissue engineering and drug delivery. Microorganisms are for example used for the biosynthesis of xanthan, alginate, cellulose, cyanophycin, poly(gamma-glutamic acid), levan, hyaluronic acid, organic acids, oligosaccharides polysaccharide and polyhydroxyalkanoates. [29]

Microorganisms are beneficial for microbial biodegradation or bioremediation of domestic, agricultural and industrial wastes and subsurface pollution in soils, sediments and marine environments. The ability of each microorganism to degrade toxic waste depends on the nature of each contaminant. Since sites typically have multiple pollutant types, the most effective approach to microbial biodegradation is to use a mixture of bacterial and fungal species and strains, each specific to the biodegradation of one or more types of contaminants. [30]

Symbiotic microbial communities confer benefits to their human and animal hosts health including aiding digestion, producing beneficial vitamins and amino acids, and suppressing pathogenic microbes. Some benefit may be conferred by eating fermented foods, probiotics (bacteria potentially beneficial to the digestive system) or prebiotics (substances consumed to promote the growth of probiotic microorganisms). [31] [32] The ways the microbiome influences human and animal health, as well as methods to influence the microbiome are active areas of research. [33]

Research has suggested that microorganisms could be useful in the treatment of cancer. Various strains of non-pathogenic clostridia can infiltrate and replicate within solid tumors. Clostridial vectors can be safely administered and their potential to deliver therapeutic proteins has been demonstrated in a variety of preclinical models. [34]

Some bacteria are used to study fundamental mechanisms. An example of model bacteria used to study motility [35] or the production of polysaccharides and development is Myxococcus xanthus . [36]

See also

Professional organizations

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Microorganism</span> Microscopic living organism

A microorganism, or microbe, is an organism of microscopic size, which may exist in its single-celled form or as a colony of cells.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Antonie van Leeuwenhoek</span> Dutch scientist known as "the Father of Microbiology", and one of the first microscopists

Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek was a Dutch microbiologist and microscopist in the Golden Age of Dutch science and technology. A largely self-taught man in science, he is commonly known as "the Father of Microbiology", and one of the first microscopists and microbiologists. Van Leeuwenhoek is best known for his pioneering work in microscopy and for his contributions toward the establishment of microbiology as a scientific discipline.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bacteriology</span> Subdiscipline of microbiology that studies bacteria

Bacteriology is the branch and specialty of biology that studies the morphology, ecology, genetics and biochemistry of bacteria as well as many other aspects related to them. This subdivision of microbiology involves the identification, classification, and characterization of bacterial species. Because of the similarity of thinking and working with microorganisms other than bacteria, such as protozoa, fungi, and viruses, there has been a tendency for the field of bacteriology to extend as microbiology. The terms were formerly often used interchangeably. However, bacteriology can be classified as a distinct science.

An anaerobic organism or anaerobe is any organism that does not require molecular oxygen for growth. It may react negatively or even die if free oxygen is present. In contrast, an aerobic organism (aerobe) is an organism that requires an oxygenated environment. Anaerobes may be unicellular or multicellular. Most fungi are obligate aerobes, requiring oxygen to survive. However, some species, such as the Chytridiomycota that reside in the rumen of cattle, are obligate anaerobes; for these species, anaerobic respiration is used because oxygen will disrupt their metabolism or kill them. Deep waters of the ocean are a common anoxic environment.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Koch's postulates</span> Four criteria showing a causal relationship between a causative microbe and a disease

Koch's postulates are four criteria designed to establish a causal relationship between a microbe and a disease. The postulates were formulated by Robert Koch and Friedrich Loeffler in 1884, based on earlier concepts described by Jakob Henle, and refined and published by Koch in 1890. Koch applied the postulates to describe the etiology of cholera and tuberculosis, both of which are now ascribed to bacteria. The postulates have been controversially generalized to other diseases. More modern concepts in microbial pathogenesis cannot be examined using Koch's postulates, including viruses and asymptomatic carriers. They have largely been supplanted by other criteria such as the Bradford Hill criteria for infectious disease causality in modern public health, and Falkow's criteria for microbial pathogenesis.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Martinus Beijerinck</span> Dutch microbiologist

Martinus Willem Beijerinck was a Dutch microbiologist and botanist who was one of the founders of virology and environmental microbiology. He is credited with the discovery of viruses, which he called "contagium vivum fluidum".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Germ theory of disease</span> Prevailing theory about diseases

The germ theory of disease is the currently accepted scientific theory for many diseases. It states that microorganisms known as pathogens or "germs" can lead to disease. These small organisms, too small to be seen without magnification, invade humans, other animals, and other living hosts. Their growth and reproduction within their hosts can cause disease. "Germ" refers to not just a bacterium but to any type of microorganism, such as protists or fungi, or even non-living pathogens that can cause disease, such as viruses, prions, or viroids. Diseases caused by pathogens are called infectious diseases. Even when a pathogen is the principal cause of a disease, environmental and hereditary factors often influence the severity of the disease, and whether a potential host individual becomes infected when exposed to the pathogen. Pathogens are disease-carrying agents that can pass from one individual to another, both in humans and animals. Infectious diseases are caused by biological agents such as pathogenic microorganisms as well as parasites.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Microbial ecology</span> Study of the relationship of microorganisms with their environment

Microbial ecology is the ecology of microorganisms: their relationship with one another and with their environment. It concerns the three major domains of life—Eukaryota, Archaea, and Bacteria—as well as viruses.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lactic acid bacteria</span> Order of bacteria

Lactobacillales are an order of gram-positive, low-GC, acid-tolerant, generally nonsporulating, nonrespiring, either rod-shaped (bacilli) or spherical (cocci) bacteria that share common metabolic and physiological characteristics. These bacteria, usually found in decomposing plants and milk products, produce lactic acid as the major metabolic end product of carbohydrate fermentation, giving them the common name lactic acid bacteria (LAB).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Food microbiology</span> Study of the microorganisms that inhibit, create, or contaminate food

Food microbiology is the study of the microorganisms that inhabit, create, or contaminate food. This includes the study of microorganisms causing food spoilage; pathogens that may cause disease ; microbes used to produce fermented foods such as cheese, yogurt, bread, beer, and wine; and microbes with other useful roles, such as producing probiotics.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Medical microbiology</span> Branch of medical science

Medical microbiology, the large subset of microbiology that is applied to medicine, is a branch of medical science concerned with the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of infectious diseases. In addition, this field of science studies various clinical applications of microbes for the improvement of health. There are four kinds of microorganisms that cause infectious disease: bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses, and one type of infectious protein called prion.

Microbial biodegradation is the use of bioremediation and biotransformation methods to harness the naturally occurring ability of microbial xenobiotic metabolism to degrade, transform or accumulate environmental pollutants, including hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heterocyclic compounds, pharmaceutical substances, radionuclides and metals.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Extracellular polymeric substance</span> Gluey polymers secreted by microorganisms to form biofilms

Extracellular polymeric substances (EPSs) are natural polymers of high molecular weight secreted by microorganisms into their environment. EPSs establish the functional and structural integrity of biofilms, and are considered the fundamental component that determines the physicochemical properties of a biofilm. EPS in the matrix of biofilms provides compositional support and protection of microbial communities from the harsh environments. Components of EPS can be of different classes of polysaccharides, lipids, nucleic acids, proteins, Lipopolysaccharides, and minerals.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Oral microbiology</span>

Oral microbiology is the study of the microorganisms (microbiota) of the oral cavity and their interactions between oral microorganisms or with the host. The environment present in the human mouth is suited to the growth of characteristic microorganisms found there. It provides a source of water and nutrients, as well as a moderate temperature. Resident microbes of the mouth adhere to the teeth and gums to resist mechanical flushing from the mouth to stomach where acid-sensitive microbes are destroyed by hydrochloric acid.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Oral ecology</span>

Oral ecology is the microbial ecology of the microorganisms found in mouths. Oral ecology, like all forms of ecology, involves the study of the living things found in oral cavities as well as their interactions with each other and with their environment. Oral ecology is frequently investigated from the perspective of oral disease prevention, often focusing on conditions such as dental caries, candidiasis ("thrush"), gingivitis, periodontal disease, and others. However, many of the interactions between the microbiota and oral environment protect from disease and support a healthy oral cavity. Interactions between microbes and their environment can result in the stabilization or destabilization of the oral microbiome, with destabilization believed to result in disease states. Destabilization of the microbiome can be influenced by several factors, including diet changes, drugs or immune system disorders.

Microbial phylogenetics is the study of the manner in which various groups of microorganisms are genetically related. This helps to trace their evolution. To study these relationships biologists rely on comparative genomics, as physiology and comparative anatomy are not possible methods.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bacteriologist</span> Professional trained in bacteriology

A bacteriologist is a microbiologist, or similarly trained professional, in bacteriology -- a subdivision of microbiology that studies bacteria, typically pathogenic ones. Bacteriologists are interested in studying and learning about bacteria, as well as using their skills in clinical settings. This includes investigating properties of bacteria such as morphology, ecology, genetics and biochemistry, phylogenetics, genomics and many other areas related to bacteria like disease diagnostic testing. Alongside human and animal healthcare providers, they may carry out various functions as medical scientists, veterinary scientists, or diagnostic technicians in locations like clinics, blood banks, hospitals, laboratories and animal hospitals. Bacteriologists working in public health or biomedical research help develop vaccines for public use.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Microbiome</span> Microbial community assemblage and activity

A microbiome is the community of microorganisms that can usually be found living together in any given habitat. It was defined more precisely in 1988 by Whipps et al. as "a characteristic microbial community occupying a reasonably well-defined habitat which has distinct physio-chemical properties. The term thus not only refers to the microorganisms involved but also encompasses their theatre of activity". In 2020, an international panel of experts published the outcome of their discussions on the definition of the microbiome. They proposed a definition of the microbiome based on a revival of the "compact, clear, and comprehensive description of the term" as originally provided by Whipps et al., but supplemented with two explanatory paragraphs. The first explanatory paragraph pronounces the dynamic character of the microbiome, and the second explanatory paragraph clearly separates the term microbiota from the term microbiome.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Human interactions with microbes</span> Overview of human—microbe interactions

Human interactions with microbes include both practical and symbolic uses of microbes, and negative interactions in the form of human, domestic animal, and crop diseases.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Vasily Leonidovitch Omelianski</span>

Vasily Leonidovich Omelianski was a Russian microbiologist and author of the first original Russian text book on microbiology. He was the only student of Sergei Winogradsky and succeeded him as head of the department of General Microbiology at the Institute of Experimental Medicine in Saint Petersburg.


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Further reading