Early history of microbiology. Historians are unsure who made the first observations of microorganisms, but the microscope was available during the mid-1600s, and an English scientist named Robert Hooke made key observations. He is reputed to have observed strands of fungi among the specimens of cells he viewed. In the 1670s and the decades thereafter, a Dutch merchant named Anton van Leeuwenhoek made careful observations of microscopic organisms, which he calledanimalcules. Until his death in 1723, van Leeuwenhoek revealed the microscopic world to scientists of the day and is regarded as one of the first to provide accurate descriptions of protozoa, fungi, and bacteria.
The development of microbiology. In the late 1800s and for the first decade of the 1900s, scientists seized the opportunity to further develop the germ theory of disease as enunciated by Pasteur and proved by Koch. There emerged a Golden Age of Microbiology during which many agents of different infectious diseases were identified. Many of the etiologic agents of microbial disease were discovered during that period, leading to the ability to halt epidemics by interrupting the spread of microorganisms.
Modern microbiology. Modern microbiology reaches into many fields of human endeavor, including the development of pharmaceutical products, the use of quality-control methods in food and dairy product production, the control of disease-causing microorganisms in consumable waters, and the industrial applications of microorganisms. Microorganisms are used to produce vitamins, amino acids, enzymes, and growth supplements. They manufacture many foods, including fermented dairy products (sour cream, yogurt, and buttermilk), as well as other fermented foods such as pickles, sauerkraut, breads, and alcoholic beverages.
One of the major areas of applied microbiology is biotechnology. In this discipline, microorganisms are used as living factories to produce pharmaceuticals that otherwise could not be manufactured. These substances include the human hormone insulin, the antiviral substance interferon, numerous blood-clotting factors and clotdissolving enzymes, and a number of vaccines. Bacteria can be reengineered to increase plant resistance to insects and frost, and biotechnology will represent a major application of microorganisms in the next century.