The ways that people now see microbes have very little to do with truth and everything to do with how people then, in the 19th century, saw microbes.
Advertising continually feeds us disinformation about microbes, bacteria in particular, in order to create markets for unneeded cleansing and health products that have helped bacteria to become drug-resistant worldwide.
As a result of media campaigns, most people believe that all microbes are germs, and that the only good germ is a dead germ.
In fact, of course, most microbes, especially bacteria, are necessary players in the game of life; without them, the game would end. Luckily, it is far beyond human power to extinguish any part of the microcosm.
To see how we arrived at this odd situation, we need a little background.
Everything we know about microscopic lives is recent. No human eye saw a microbe until about 350 years ago.
Robert Hooke, in England, built compound microscopes, drew excellent studies of what he saw and published them in his book Micrographia in 1665. Hooke saw and named cells in cork, thus naming for perpetuity the small structural units of tissues. Hooke apparently had small interest in invisible organisms, or in biology.
Hooke's compound microscope
Hooke's eye of fly
A linen merchant named Anton van Leeuwenhoek visited England and read Hooke’s explanations of lens making with fascination. He went home to Holland and spent the rest of his life exploring the microbes with single lens microscopes that he made. Leeuwenhoek saw and described many protozoa (which he called “animalcules”), algae, yeast cells, living blood, and living sperm cells of several species. With his superb lenses he even saw bacteria, and described their major body types. He was invited to join the Royal Society of England, a great honor for an outsider.
One of van Leeuwenhoek's microscopes; he made some 500
So. After the work of Robert Hooke and Anton van Leeuwenhoek in the mid 1600s, educated people knew that there was much more to life than meets the eye. They knew that tiny living creatures—animalcules—shared the earth with large creatures such as houseflies, sheep and humans. For the next 200 years, microbial life was more interesting than alarming.
We must remember that in this period, contagious diseases such as plague, cholera, and typhoid, regularly scourged mankind. People had no defense. Families did not expect all their children to grow up.
And they didn't.
Then, in the mid 1800s, in France, Louis Pastuer disproved the idea of spontaneous generation of life. He developed by experiment the Germ Theory of Disease.
Microbes were redefined as Germs, frightful bringers of disease. Modern medicine began, and science started its long search for ways to kill microbes. Cleanliness became next to godliness.
Surgeons began to wash their hands.
Innoculations, vaccinations, and pastuerized milk and wine soon followed.
Soon all invisible life was regarded with disgust as germs.
Researchers turned their attention to the purification of water supplies, and build-ing safer sewer systems.
Meanwhile the new science of microbiology began to discover thousands of microbes that had no apparent infectious nature. But Pasteur's group of scientists essentially controlled microbiology, and refused publication of studies that suggested roles for microbes other than disease.
Around the world, public health officials began huge campaigns of public education that continue today. In them, all microbes are tarred with the same brush. They are grotesque, small, and they want to hurt us.
Wash your hands.
Let's get them outta here!
So, what do we know about microbes? Yes, a few are human pathogens. The major truth about microbes is that none of us can survive for long without them. Somewhere near a thousand kinds of microbes live inside the gut of mammals. They are symbiotic partners that allow us to digest our food. On the vast scale of the biosphere (all life on Earth), microbes are symbiotic partners of every kind of life; without microbes, all life ends. To explore the truth about microbes:
Go to: Procaryote Domain
Go to: Protists Protozoa
Go to: Protists Algae
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