Almanac: The discovery of bacteria

Almanac: Discovering bacteria

And now a page from our "Sunday Morning" Almanac: September 17th, 1683, 334 years ago today -- a very big day for our knowledge of a very small life-form.

For that was the day Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, of Holland, wrote to the Royal Society in London to tell them he'd used his homemade microscope to discover tiny organisms in human dental plaque.

A recreation of the microscopic view that 17th century Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek beheld of bacteria.  Lesley Robertson/Delft University of Technology

The Delft University of Technology in Holland has recreated the view through his microscope.

"Their motion was strong and nimble," he wrote, "and they darted themselves through the water."

"They" were bacteria -- single-celled organisms that live and thrive in virtually any environment on Earth. One estimate puts their numbers worldwide at five NONILLION. (That's a five followed by THIRTY zeroes, or 5,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.)

Among the places where bacteria romp is the human body. On the upside, the billions of bacteria we each play host to help with digestion, among other things.

On the downside, of course, they can also cause disease.

To counter their threat, modern science has created antibiotics and antibacterial hand scrubs, which have mostly served us well. But in an unintended consequence, bacteria are fighting back, as the late Dr. Robert Moellering of Harvard University told us in 2013:

From the archive: Keeping germs at bay

"This is a ticking time bomb," Moellering told "Sunday Morning" correspondent Serena Altschul, "because of the fact that bacteria are developing resistance mechanisms more rapidly now than we can find new antibiotics."

As a result, ours is the age of so-called "superbugs" -- bacteria that even the most powerful drugs are hard-pressed to stop.

Tiny organisms posing a very big challenge. Little did van Leeuwenhoek know!

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