A BRIEF HISTORY OF FERMENTATION MEDICAL MICROBIOLOGY AND PROBIOTICS
R. H. Bennett M.S., Ph.D.
In a time perhaps tens of thousands of years past, nomadic tribes tended goats and sheep. People collected milk in cured animal bladders and stomachs. Indeed in the warm climate bacteria common to animals and humans thrived in the milk. This bacterial growth caused fermentation; we know as sour milk. The sourness is lactic acid the fermentative bacteria produced as they metabolized the milk sugar lactose. These bacteria live on and in the human and animals, and human hands spread the microbes everywhere.
Indigenous cultures used the fermentation process to preserve milk, produce cheese-like food, and produce an alcoholic beverage as well. Bacterial fermentation is used today, carrying on traditions of old. In many parts of the world, fermentation is used to preserve fish, vegetables, wild game, and milk. The acid of fermentation and salting foods were the “refrigerators” of old.
Fermented milk, as kefir and yogurt, originated in the days of the Russian Tartars, Huns, and Moguls. As time went on, fermented milk was well noted for its health benefits. Now a few thousand years later we appreciate the science behind this ancient health food.
For humans, fermentation was also occurring in and on the body, and it was the same bacteria producing similar kinds of organic acids the help protect the gut, the skin, and the urogenital organs from colonization and infection from disease-producing bacteria. This natural metabolic feat by our indigenous bacteria works in our favor in very many ways.
Thousands of years later the famous French microbiologist Louis Pasteur described lactic acid bacteria for the first time in 1857. The first pure culture, one containing no other bacteria types, other than Lactococcus lactis emerged from the laboratory of Joseph Lister in 1878. Lister is also known the first antiseptic, carbolic acid and pioneered in spite of considerable opposition from the surgeons of the day, the practice of aseptic or sterile surgery.
Henry Tissier, a French pediatrician, first to describe the Bifidobacteria. He commonly isolated this Y shaped bacteria from the stool of healthy infants. He also observed that the stools of children with diarrhea had very low numbers of the Bifidobacteria. Breastfed babies typically had the highest numbers of stool Bifidobacteria. He used these bacteria, he grew up in the lab, to successfully treat children with diarrhea.
In the early 1900ʻs, Ernst Moro isolated another bacteria common to healthy infant feces. This bacteria Ernst called, Bacillus acidophilus for its excellent tolerance of acid conditions. Today we know this microbe as Lactobacillus acidophilus. This bacterium that produces some tantalizing fermented dairy products, got its start when a woman’s hands likely contaminated with her infant’s feces, milked the goat. A couple of days later the milk was transformed into yogurt.
The man known as the father of probiotics is the Russian physician Elie Metchnikoff. In 1907 he documented improved health and longevity in persons consuming fermented milk containing Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB). In so doing he brought the initial scientific understanding to the practice of fermenting milk that began thousands of years earlier.
The question did remain at the time, however, where did the bacteria originate? Pasteur’s experiments conclusively demonstrated that bacteria do not arise out of thin air. There was a notion at the time that life is seen in the form of fuzzy molds and red slimy bacteria spontaneously arose. It was called the theory of Spontaneous Generation.
So where did bacteria originate? It probably worked like this over thousands of years. Bacteria native to the soil water environment evolved to those niches. As animals came to be, some of these bacteria entered the body, and few types colonized there. The first humans had similar contact with the environment and the animals killed for food. The human hand moved massive numbers of thousands of types of bacteria to the mouth and body. Some bacteria colonized the body and those that conferred a survival benefit to the human persisted with the human, and perhaps for all generations to come.
Today scientists using modern tools for microbial culture and molecular identification can isolate the LAB and the Bifidobacteria from human feces and locations on the body like the urogenital mucus membranes. Science long ago established that fecal microbes good and bad, can easily inoculate the female genitalia and some of the LAB and Bifidobacteria reside there. As such, they confer benefits to the health of the reproductive tract and most importantly a source of birthing neonatal inoculation with bacteria essential for the health and wellness of the newborn. The benefits conferred to the neonate can have lifelong health and wellness influences.
Any impression that people have that some or all of the good bacteria for probiotics have to be perpetually collected and isolated from the human body is just not true. They will take respite in the knowledge that in today's modern probiotic production, pure cultures of these bacteria common to locales on and in the human body come from companies that grow and maintain these cultures frozen for future purchase and use in microbial production facilities. Giant vats of sterile growth media get inoculated with the pure culture of a single bacteria, genus, species, and strain. It grows to trillions or more in number then the bacteria are dried or otherwise preserved. In this form they can be blended with other strains of probiotic bacteria, encapsulated or added to a dairy product or similar liquid intended for consumption.
Thus the bacteria emerged in the environment, found a home in an animal or human, was isolated there and then purified and grown up in massive numbers for commercial use. This process conclusively demonstrates this natural connection is essential for our life and wellbeing. It is critical to realize we are our bacteria and we live in a mutually beneficial and vital relationship. This is symbiosis.
Dr. Bennett is an applied environmental and medical microbiologist and with 30+ years of academic and commercial experience. He has worked in the development of commercial probiotics and Synbiotics for use in animal and human health and wellness. His motto is “eat closer to the ground”.
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