A History of Probiotics in the Lab

Just Because We Couldn’t See Them…

Didn’t Mean They Weren’t There

While beneficial bacteria have been on Earth billions of years before humans came into existence, it is only now that we understand we all have microflora which must be well taken care of.  Science still has a lot of catching up to do but we’ve already come a long way in our appreciation for these friendly microbes.

Over the past century and a half, in-lab research has certainly seen its ups and downs.  Please read on for a brief but interesting account on how probiotics came to be studied seriously in science labs around the world.  If you still think they are just temporary craze, read how we discovered them outside of a lab to understand why they’re not just another health fad.

Pioneers in Probiotics “In-Lab” Research

In 1885 a pioneering study of human feces and bacteria was conducted by Escherich who recognized the importance of the physiology of the digestive system, intestinal tract and therapy of intestinal illnesses with the use of bacterium. However the scientific exploration of what we know today to be probiotics truly started in the late 19th century at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Dr. Henry Tissier, a research scientist in 1899, proved that infants with bifidobacteria provided from human breast milk that reached their intestinal tract had fewer gastrointestinal issues than infants that did not have this bacterium.

A Nobel Prize Winner and the Father of “Modern Probiotics”

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

However, Eli Metchnikoff is credited as the father of “modern probiotics,” even if the term “probiotics” was not coined until the 1950’s, four decades after Metchnikoff’s discovery. That is, while probiotics have been around for billions of years, it was not until Metchnikoff that we started really studying and understanding what they were and how they can benefit us in a modern context.

After noticing that Bulgarian rural peasants seemed to live fuller and longer lives compared to Parisian aristocrats, he investigated how and why it was possible. His eventual scientific findings suggested that the fermented milk that they consumed contained lactobacillus. This bacterium he believed was responsible for changing the pH of the intestinal tract and counter-balancing other harmful bacteria with this healthy gut bacterium.

Metchnikoff proved that harmful bacteria could be replaced with healthy bacteria to actually treat intestinal illnesses and was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for his work.

Human Feces Can Have Its Benefits

Alfred Nissle, a German professor, took up the probiotics torch next and was intrigued with their use as medication for illnesses, as there were no antibiotics at this time and proven medications were in their scientific infancy, especially for infectious illnesses. During a shigella outbreak, which causes severe diarrhea, Nissle discovered a new strain of bacteria in the feces of a World War I soldier that contracted shigella but did not exhibit the classic signs of diarrhea as other patients had. Eschericia coli, was used to treat shigella and salmonella to great effect by reintroducing it into the intestines. After Metchnikoff’s death in 1916, most probiotic scientific study moved overseas to the United States until the beginning of World War II.

Unfortunately, the study of bacteria in gut health took two major defeats that would see its scientific inquiry all but cease for almost 50 years.

And Then the Momentum “In the Labs” Stopped

The first blow to its research momentum was in 1908 that showed that Metchnikoff was wrong and that the bacteria strain he thought was a life-prolonger did not actually survive in the intestine as proven by the research of Herter and Kendall.

It was not a total disservice as these researchers were able to prove that there were major changes in the gut’s microflora as a result, and further research was needed to establish which bacteria was able to survive the harsh environment of the stomach and intestines and would have a positive health result.

Yet the two World Wars and the Great Depression effectively slowed and then stopped all research into the area of gut health starting in 1914 up until a resurgence in the late 1950s and early 1960’s when finally the term “probiotics” was coined.

So How About Today?

Despite a few setbacks in scientific discovery, probiotics research has continued and today, there are an unparalleled number of studies being undertaken daily.

People see their benefits, both in the lab and “in real life” and it’s up to us few who know this to spread the word.

A lot has changed since the dawn of “modern probiotics” and our need for them has arguably increased dramatically over this same timeframe.  Read Why do we need probiotics today to have a better appreciation for the urgency for us all to be ensuring we include enough fermented probiotics into our daily lives.