Microbes for life

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: (Published 17 February 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:449
  1. Bernard Dixon

    Everyone knows that microbes cause disease, and that Louis Pasteur was the first to scrutinise their nefarious activities. Yet few realise that astronomically greater populations of microorganisms are beneficial, and indeed essential, to life on earth. The name of Martinus Beijerinck, who demonstrated our total dependence on the microbial world, is correspondingly unfamiliar.

    Beijerinck worked in Delft, which became a Mecca for microbiologists from all over the world from 1885 until he retired in 1921. There he established that bacteria, living in nodules on the roots of legumes, fix nitrogen from the air. He studied organisms responsible for many other natural processes—including …

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