Bacteriology is a specialization of microbiology concerned with the study of bacteria and their actions and relationships. Having impacts in medicine, agriculture, food production and preservation and much, much more, this field of study has become important in our understanding of the world around us.
Bacteria are single celled organisms that exist throughout our environment. In soil, water and even in the air. Bacteria can even exist in hot springs, radioactive waste and deep within the rock of the Earth. It has been estimated that there are as many as ten times more bacterial cells in the human body as there are human cells. Most bacteria are benign, or harmless, but some can cause disease. Some bacteria in humans are actually essential for our survival acting in symbiosis to help with digestive and other bodily functions.
A relatively new science, bacteriology is commonly traced to the experiments of Louis Pasteur in the mid-19th century. Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the inventor of the microscope, first discovered bacteria in 1676. However, the understanding of the nature and actions of microscopic organisms did not really begin for another two hundred years.
Contagious diseases, many of them caused by bacteria, had been known for centuries. What caused these illnesses, and how to treat for them, however, was not understood. Even following Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries it was often believed that the microorganisms that caused disease, fermentation and putrefaction arose spontaneously.
The difficulty of working with a truly clean environment made it difficult to prove that microorganisms spread through the air and through contact. Pasteur developed techniques that allowed experiments to prove that bacteria caused disease and putrefaction and that bacteria are organisms that reproduce by methods commonly known to biological science. One of the techniques he developed, called Pasteurization, involves heating a substance to kill all existing microorganisms and is still used today in the preservation of foods such as milk and other dairy products.
Having numerous areas of specialization, bacteriology is a broad field. Bacterial taxonomists study the taxonomy, or classification and organization, of the myriad of species of bacteria. Pathology and immunology are involved with the effects of bacteria and other microorganisms in medical science. Soil bacteriologists study bacteria in the soil and their effect on agriculture. Zymology is the study of bacteria, yeasts and molds in fermentation.
As biological sciences advance the importance of bacteriology is ever increasing. New techniques for modifying the DNA of bacteria are allowing scientists to develop bacteria for the production of specific materials such as insulin and antibodies. Better knowledge of the variety of bacteria in nature are helping us to identify species that can be put to beneficial use in biofuels production. And scientists have even discovered and developed bacteria that are capable of consuming oil in oil spills and decompose plastics in landfills.