Remembering Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, father of microbiology

24 Oct 2016

Portrait of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723). Public Domain/CC0 1.0

Google has gone all scientific with today’s (24 October) doodle, celebrating the 384th birthday of microbiology pioneer Antoni van Leeuwenhoek.

Born on this day in 1632, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek’s mark on history has been profound. The father of microbiology, it was Van Leeuwenhoek’s mastery of engineering that changed the scientific game.

Designer of a single-lens microscope, the Dutchman brought the small onto the large screen, allowing greater investigation of everything from leaves to lungs.

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek

It was what Van Leeuwenhoek saw in the water of his local lake that started the ball rolling, as he spotted what he called “little animals” in a letter written to the Royal Society of London at the time.

Operating out of Delft in the Netherlands, Van Leeuwenhoek’s DIY enthusiasm created an environment in which to prosper, constructing his own devices and, in this case, grounding and polishing his own lenses.

Some of the magnification achieved by Van Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes reached x200, allowing him to examine capillaries, muscle fibres, and other wonders of the microscopic universe.

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek

Currently, the world’s strongest microscope can view things at around 20m times that of humans, costing almost $10m.

Researchers operating the 2013 STEHM (Scanning Transmission Electron Holography Microscope) viewed gold atoms through the microscope at a resolution of 35 picometres. One picometre is a trillionth of a metre.

Despite STEHM starting what its makers labelled a new era of scientific discovery, and enabling us to “see the unseen world”, its significance pales in comparison to Van Leeuwenhoek’s achievements.

Doodler Gerben Steenks noted, “I chose to make it an animated Doodle to show the ‘before and after’ experience that Antoni van Leeuwenhoek had – looking through a microscope and seeing a surprising new world.”

An example of the unseen world that Van Leeuwenhoek kick-started our investigation into was best portrayed in last week’s results of the Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition.

Oscar Ruiz took top prize at the 42nd running of the event for his microscopic view of the facial development of a four-day-old zebrafish embryo.

Using the time-lapse as a guide, Ruiz is creating an atlas of the development of the zebrafish face and with his group, he is tracking physical landmarks throughout to monitor how exactly a normal zebrafish’s face develops.

Similarly, the same metrics can then be used to identify abnormalities in the development of zebrafish harbouring specific genetic mutations identified in human patients.

Portrait of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723). Public Domain/CC0 1.0

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic