Chapter 3 : Some Microbes Prefer Life without Air

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Following Leeuwenhoek’s work in the mid-1600s, a century and a half elapsed before microbes were in the news again. The concept that microbes might be agents of chemical changes in their environments was not appreciated until the nature of fermentation processes was clarified. This was accomplished by Louis Pasteur, who demonstrated that production of alcohol from sugar by certain microbes-"alcoholic fermentation"-was, as he put it, a "consequence of life without air". The idea that there were forms of life that did not require air (that is, oxygen gas) must have seemed strange to many in Pasteur's time. Lactic acid fermentation occurs not only in milk, but also in our muscles when we move or exercise. In both situations, the fermentation has the same function, that is, both lactic acid bacteria and muscle cells derive the same kind of benefit from breaking down sugars to the smaller molecules of lactic acid. In 868 Pasteur settled the vexing question of the cause of the alcoholic fermentation to his own satisfaction, concluding that "alcoholic fermentation is an act correlated with the life and organization of yeast cells". The air in the Earth's atmosphere contains about 20% oxygen gas, and one result of Pasteur's research was recognition of the important fact that there are many kinds of microbes that do not need this oxygen. He named such microbes anaerobes.

Citation: Gest H. 2003. Some Microbes Prefer Life without Air, p 12-15. In Microbes. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555817855.ch3
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