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A Research On Microbes - The Aliens Of Earth

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For centuries, humans have been vastly mystified by the immensity of the universe beyond the surface of the Earth. In fact, human’s ardent fascination with the heavens had even inspired them to explicitly design specialized technologies, such as the telescope, to study the expanse of the unknown. Though the telescope and its curved lenses did wonders to magnify the universe in the sky, no early innovator would have been able to guess that that same piece of polished, convex glass will also one day be utilized in the magnification of another, universe: one that exists on the Earth itself. Despite coinciding on the same planet, this universe had actually managed to remain undetected by man for millions of years. However, thanks to the invention of the microscope and the vigilant eyes of early scientists, a world of microscopic, alien beings will finally be discovered for the first time. Eventually, this initial discovery of microbes will spark some of the most significant discoveries in world history following the 1800s, and only by examining the discovery itself, other discoveries in microbiology after the initial discovery, and the effects of those discoveries on the world can the significance of the first sightings of microbes be effectively realized. In order to understand the importance of a discovery, one must first study the discovery itself and slowly watch as it evolves into the great influence it is today. However, such tasks will be impossible if one is unaware of what the discovery even is. In this case, that discovery is a microbe, which can often be confused as being the same object as a ‘microorganism’. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a microorganism is ‘a living thing which on its own is too small to be seen without a microscope’ (Cambridge). However, though they do contain genetic information and are capable of adapting to their environment, similar to the capabilities of a living organism, modern scientists have already long established that viruses are not actually alive due to its inability to reproduce without a host. Though, the word ‘microbe’ also has a similar meaning of being an object too small to be seen without a microscope, it is important to know that this term will also be able to encompass viruses, as well as other living microorganisms such as bacteria, blue-green bacteria, and certain types of algae, fungi, yeasts, and protozoans (‘Microbes’). Thus, ‘microbe’ will be the main term used throughout this paper to describe these remarkably miniscule bodies.

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The first recorded discovery of a microbe was accomplished in 1665 by a scientist named Robert Hooke, who published its descriptions in his book of objects examined under the microscope, titled Micrographia. In this specific case, the object in which Hooke had been examining was a spot of mold, found on the sheep skin cover of a small book. After the examination, Hooke wrote, ‘These spots appear’d, through a good Microscope, to be very pretty shap’d vegetative body, which, from almost the same part of the Lether, shot out multitudes of small long cylindrical and transparent stalks’. Based on his description and the accompanying drawing of the microbe, microbiologists today can classify Hooke’s specimen as the micro-fungus Mucor, which is more commonly known as ‘bread mold’. However, similar to all other discoveries in the science world, this new idea of a microscopic organism will not be easily accepted as a discovery until someone uncovers the right evidence to convince the world of its validity. This evidence eventually came after a series of curious experimentation made by a common shopkeeper named Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. Due to a cold and his inability to taste the potency of spices, Leeuwenhoek quickly became intrigued by the concept of taste which led him to inspect all kinds of taste related things, including a homemade concoction of pepper infused water.

‘On 24 April 1676, Leeuwenhoek scrutinized some ‘pepper water’ that had been sitting for three weeks and was astonished to see many very small organisms that he called ‘animalicules’ or little eels. They were actually bacteria’. After the discovery, Leeuwenhoek quickly wrote letters to the Secretary of the Royal Society with concise descriptions about his experiment and sighting of micro-sized eels. Surprisingly, this position of secretary actually belonged to the original discoverer of microbes himself, Robert Hooke, who enthusiastically repeated Leeuwenhoek’s experiment. Originally, Hooke was unable to see any ‘animalicules’ in his replication of the experiment. However, after leaving the pepper water for another five to six more days, Hooke finally found what he was looking for and wrote his confirmation of Leeuwenhoek’s findings in a report which states, ‘I examined again the said water; and then much to wonder I discovered vast multitudes of those exceeding small creatures, which Mr. Leeuwenhoek had described’. In the end, both Hooke and Leeuwenhoek were credited with the honor of being the first to discover the universe of microbes because they both held major contributions in the act of persuading the science community into acknowledging the existence of such alien beings. In addition to the initial discovery of microbes, examining how that initial discovery inspired other discoveries is also necessary to recognize the growth and long-term significance of the initial discovery. Unfortunately, this growth in the study of microbes will prove to be difficult to instigate because though the existence of microbes will have been known for two hundred years by the 1800s, the only studies ever done on them were to identify their morphology and taxonomy. Eventually, this will all start to change when some scientists begin to discover the connection between microbes and their role in causing disease, and one of the biggest contributors to this important revelation was a biologist named Louis Pasteur.

In 1855, Pasteur decided to lodge himself in a research project on fermentation problems at a local sugar beet distillery, a project that would eventually lead him to his first encounters with microbes. After two years of study, Pasteur announce that ‘the yeast used in the process of fermentation was a living microbe and necessary for successful fermentation’. He continued by explaining how he found no yeast microbes in the vats of failed fermentation, but actually found a plethora of yeast killing microbes instead. Thus, proving the importance of yeast in the process of fermentation. From the distillery problems and the discovery of yeast-killing microbes, Pasteur decided to end his fermentation research with a conclusion stating that, ‘microbes were living, and sometimes harmful, organisms’. Despite his difficulties to finish the study, criticism of Pasteur’s work will soon form in the science community, stemming from the centuries long belief that fermentation was not caused by any yeast microbe, but were actually the result of spontaneous generation, the ‘belief that some living things can arise suddenly from inanimate matter’. At the same time of this criticism, scientists were also having a debate involving the ideas of spontaneous generation and another, opposing idea called biogenesis, which is the belief that ‘living cells can only arise from preexisting living cells’. For the purpose of protecting his research, Pasteur decided to join the debate and prove to the world that yeast microbes were the actual cause of fermentation. To do so, Pasteur must first prove that the concept of spontaneous generation is incorrect and collect enough evidence to support his claim. This was done through a strategically designed experiment involving s-necked flasks and open flasks filled with sterile, boiled beef broth. After being left out for a few days, the open flasks were expectedly contaminated with microbes while the s-necked flasks remained sterile which, Pasteur explained, was because ‘the s-shaped curve allowed air to pass into the flask; however, the curved neck trapped airborne microorganisms at the bottom of the curve, preventing them from contaminating the broth’.

From this experiment, Pasteur concluded that though air carries microbes that can contaminate solutions, the air itself is not capable of spontaneously generating microbes because though the s-necked flasks were opened to allow air to enter, no microbes were able to spontaneously generate from the air in the s-necked flask and contaminate its broth. By falsifying spontaneous generation and proving that fermentation was caused by yeast microbes, Pasteur also proved the conclusion part of his research which states that microbes, such as the yeast killing microbe, can sometimes be harmful. This will later lead Pasteur to develop the germ theory of disease which claims that some harmful microbes can be the cause of certain diseases capable of killing animals and plants. However, this too was a commonly criticized idea because there are many who still believes that diseases in animals were caused by an imbalance in the amount of ‘humors’ or certain fluids in the body. In order to eliminate criticism, Pasteur decided to conduct another research project involving diseased silkworms to find evidence in support of his new theory.

However, more convincing evidence will actually come from a German physician named Robert Koch, who decided to study a much deadlier disease that commonly infect livestock instead, specifically a strain of anthrax in cows. In the 1870s, Koch announced that he was able to identify the bacterium that causes anthrax and even developed a method to grow the anthrax bacteria in his lab. After injecting healthy cows with the lab grown bacteria, the injected cows also developed anthrax. This is clear evidence in support of Pasteur’s germ theory because it shows that harmful microbes, such as the anthrax bacteria, can really infect and sometimes kill the animal it infected. Unfortunately, humans, who are also animals, were no exception to these harmful microbes. Following the verification of the germ theory, Koch and Pasteur were also able to find other important discoveries based on that theory. While Koch developed a four-step method to identify other pathogenic microbes, Pasteur was busy developing some of the world’s first synthetic vaccines which uses microbes grown in lab-controlled cultures to create vaccines for fowl cholera, anthrax, and even rabies, which unlike the others is actually a virus caused infection. Additionally, Pasteur also began encouraging the action of heating liquids, or Pasteurization, to prevent the growth of harmful microbes in milk, wine, juice, and various liquid products to hinder spoilage and the spread of pathogens. Aside from Pasteur and Koch, other scientists were also starting to base more research on the germ theory as well, resulting in discoveries ranging from proof that proper sanitation is crucial in fighting contagious diseases, to the development of antiseptic methods that reduces deaths in surgery and labor.

By the 1900s, further research on dangerous microbes will even lead to the development of actual forms of treatment for microbe caused diseases, apart from just vaccines to prevent them. An example of such treatment are two drugs, commonly found in mold, that is effective in treating bacterial infections. Those drugs are more commonly known today as sulfa drugs and penicillin and the discovery of these treatments will eventually start, ‘ a rush to find other natural, and eventually synthetic, antibiotics; the development of viral vaccines, including those for polio and yellow fever; and the birth of molecular biology’. Even so, it is important to remember that none of these discoveries would have been possible if scientists never knew microbes existed in the first place. By being the foundation for all revelations in the field of microbiology, the initial discovery of microbes is therefore also indirectly responsible for the impact of all those revelations on the world. From the foundation of the germ theory to the first development of vaccines and antibiotics, scientist know today these revelations are extremely important to the world and the people living on it because over half of all human diseases are caused by microbes. In fact, some of those diseases are so devastating that they are still being mentioned history books today, including the bubonic plague bacteria that killed about one third of Europe’s population in the 1300s, the small pox virus that killed 20 million Native Americans during the colonial era, and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 that killed between 30-50 million worldwide during World War II (CNN). In addition to humans, microbes are also proven to be responsible for causing diseases in animals and plants as well, resulting in a devastating economic impact on ‘the poultry, sheep, silkworm, and swine industries as well as the vinegar, wine, and beer industries; often spoiling production’.

If more research on microbes had been done earlier, perhaps more deaths could have been prevented. Even so, it is better late than never, because although humans did spend 200 years completely unaware of the potential of microbiology, their enthusiastic need to satisfy the humanly innate sense of curiosity had led them to develop even better technologies at an even faster speed than ever before. Now, another 200 years later, the science of microbiology had advanced so much that some diseases, such as polio and small pox, are even eradicated, while others, such as yellow fever, are greatly reduced. Moreover, the majority of microbe caused diseases today are also preventable by vaccines, and even treatable by antibiotics or antiviral drugs. Therefore, despite the threat of outbreaks constantly being mentioned in the news about dangerous new microbes such as the Zika, Ebola, HIV/AIDS, or the yearly flu viruses, the human’s growing bank of knowledge and constant passion to explore will allow them to persevere even in a universe of aliens.

In conclusion, by examining the initial discovery of microbes, other discoveries in microbiology following the initial discovery, and the effects of those discoveries on the world, one can clearly understand how that first discovery of a microbe became responsible for some of the most important discoveries in the world since the 1800s. When a person is asked to name a favorite food, often times that person will take a long moment to think about an answer because there are so many types of foods to choose from. Likewise, when the world is asked to name a discovery that it considers to be the most important, the obvious reply will be an infinite number of opinions from an infinite source of people. However, history has proven that diseases related to microbes can potentially be some of the deadliest and most devastating, capable of generating as many casualties as those in World War I during just one outbreak alone. Therefore, if the universe of microbes had continued to remain undiscovered, imagine how many total lives would have been lost to an enemy that is a hundred times smaller than a mere ant. Included in the incalculable number of losses, imagine how many of those people could have been the geniuses who discovered some of the greatest ideas and technologies in the modern world. Moreover, imagine how many future geniuses may have to lose their lives if the universe of microbiology, similar to the universe in beyond the skies, had never developed and expanded to the size it has today.

10 December 2020

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