Probiotic history

Elie Metchnikoff

Discovering a world we cannot see


The concept of invisible matter has long been pre-occupying thinkers and scientists.  One of the first attempts to describe this world of microbiology dates back to the 1st century BC, where Roman scholar Terentius Varro laid some ground work and basic views of microbiology and epidemiology.  These writings were continued and exploited in the 1400’s by another Italian scientist, Girolamo Fracastoro, whereby he published a treatise called De-Contagione, about biology and microorganisms, that invaded the human body.  The invention of the microscope in the late 1500’s was yet another important milestone in the world of micro-organisms and biology.  In the early 1600’s, inspired by the microscope application to living microorganisms not visible to the eye, Athanasius Kircher, a German Jesuit scholar, was attributed as the father of experimental microbiology. His fundamental research and studies with the microscope led him to the belief that disease and decay was caused by the presence of invisible living bodies – the first scientist to have made such discovery.


Probiotics:  the early years.

scale of the probiotics history

Louis Pasteur’s work gave birth too many branches of science; setting the stage for modern biology and biochemistry.  He not only demystified the theory of spontaneous generation, but also proved the existence of microbes being activated in certain conditions, which allowed him to interprete the basis for fermentation, wine-making, and the brewing of beer from a scientific point of view. While Pasteur was the first to advance the concept that microorganisms were required for all human beings to stay healthy, the Russian scientist Elie Metchnikoff, who has worked at the famous Pasteur Institute in Paris during 28 years, was the first to suggest that Lactic Acid Bacteria were beneficial to the intestinal health of humans, and that they could suppress the activity of harmful germs. He proposed this theory after noting the longevity of Bulgarian peasants, linking their longevity to their diet, which included large amounts of fermented yogurt.

In 1908, Metchnikoff received the Nobel Prize for his work involving the link between the immune system and intestinal bacteria.  A year before this honor, his published works “The Prolongation of Life“ outlined the relation between dietary habits and human intestine, which could be an origin of bad microbes propagation. He concluded by simply modifying the human gut flora through our food intake these bad bacteria could be replaced by useful ones and as a result slow down the aging process; a direct synergistic interaction between Lactic Acid Bacteria and their host.

A site of action for bacteria

Fast forward to the 1970’s and we find the scientific work of Professor Tomotari Mitsuoka, who paved the way for the application of the theory of intestinal flora balance to maintain human health and prevention of disease. His commitment was significant to the contribution and development of the first culture and research methods for the intestinal flora, and subsequently discovering, classifying and naming many lactic acid bacteria and intestinal anaerobes.

In his book published in 1978, “Intestinal Flora and Health”, which still remains one of the focal references in the study of lactic acid bacteria today, Dr. Tomotari Mitsuoka demonstrated how the composition of intestinal flora changes during a lifetime, and how amounts of bifidobacteria decrease with age, while colon diseases increase at the same time. In light of this, he supported the theory that oral administration of probiotics, including bifidobacteria, would improve intestinal flora balance and help to prevent the development of lower bowel conditions.

Today, many potential health benefits of probiotic bacteria are being studied. Lactic acid bacteria play a key role in restoring and maintaining intestinal flora balance, and they have also been shown to enhance immune system functions. Among other things, they are being investigated for their hypocholesterolemic effects, their role in colon cancer prevention, and their use as treatment for urogenital and vaginal diseases.