Van Leeuwenhoek's first observation of a microbe, Spirogyra?

Images made through a microscope. All subject types.

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Wim van Egmond
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Van Leeuwenhoek's first observation of a microbe, Spirogyra?

Post by Wim van Egmond »

The past month I've worked hard on an article for Micscape magazine that may be of interest for some of you. I hope it is o.k. that I 'advertise' for it here :-) But I am curious if it is convincing so please take some time if you wish to read it. And please let me know what you think.

It is a rather extensive article (We are working on a summary) But I liked to write it as detailed as I could. It is a bit of a detective story.

It is about the discovery of microorganisms by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek from the Berkelse meer. This can be regarded as the birth of microbiology. The first organism he describes has been identified by Dobell in his 1932 biography as Spirogyra and that is almost considered as a fact nowadays. In this article we try to challenge this and present a more likely candidate. I say 'we' because the article was a collaboration with a hydrobiologist friend and with Dave Walker, the editor of Micscape who did a lot of research and became as obsessed with the subject as I am. ... hoek2.html

The 2 images I post here are of the subject of the article. Which one did Van Leeuwenhoek describe? Was it Spirogyra or could it have been the cyanobacterium Dolichospermum?

These were both shot with the same magnification, a 16X objective. Image with about 0,9 mm. They are both stacks.




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Post by Olympusman »

Second one looks like a species of Spirulina which I first encountered last summer.

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Post by 75RR »

Enjoyed the article very much, good detective story.
I found your arguments quite convincing.
A small suggestion if I may. Have any of the capillary tubes survived?
If so, an image of one with some idea of scale would reinforce your argument about the difficulty of introducing Spirogyra in one.
Thank you

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Post by René »

Yes, I was wondering about that capillary as well. A tube could introduce some extra distortion in the image, I would think. And how could these have been made by Leeuwenhoek?

Wonderful work in any case!


Wim van Egmond
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Post by Wim van Egmond »

Thank you very much. I am not sure about the capillaries. I assumed that if he was using then that it would have been hard to get Spirogyra in it. But he would even have had noticed it when putting them in a bottle. If it was Spirogyra he would have described it differently.

Cyanobaceria easily enter a bottle.

I just tried to find as many clues as possible. There is not true smoking gun but at least we put some attention to this subject. I hope more people in the forum take time to read it.


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Post by Pau »

Wim, this is a very interesting article and a pleasure to read. I'm a fan of Leewenhoek.

My limited knowledge doesn't allow me to post an opinion, but your arguments are so convincingly exposed that I'm with you. At least you would be a winner lawyer :lol:

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Post by JH »

Interesting article! Thanks Wim.

And what a marvelous designed microscope.

Regards Jörgen

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Post by Cactusdave »

A very interesting article. Your argument that Leewenhoek saw a Dolichospermum blue green alga (cyanobacterium) rather than the filamentous green alga Spirogyra, is very well argued and I'm sure is correct. Both Leewenhoek's accurate description and the circumstances and location of his sample collection make it highly probable.
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Post by carlos.uruguay »

Excellent work! Thanks for sharing it!

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Post by Jacek »


Wim van Egmond
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Post by Wim van Egmond »

Thank you friends! I hope we can spread the idea. The more I dive into the subject the more clues I find.

This quote is from a letter 3 months before the Berkelse Meer find when Van Leeuwenhoek found red blood cells. These are smaller than the individual cells of these cyanobacteria.

"I prepared divers sorts of very slender hollow Glass-pipes of which some were not thicker than a mans-hair; and the slenderer they are, the clearer will they make the red Globuls of the Blood appear."

What I find interesting is that the thinner the tubes the clearer the image becomes. There were no coverslips at the time. I think making a very thin capillary would be the only way to make such thin glass.

I think it is hard to get Spirogyra into a capillary, but I may be wrong.


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Post by rjlittlefield »

Fascinating discussion! Many thanks for helping to set the history straight here.


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Post by pennine56 »


At the risk of making Wim blush, the article was featured in an 'In the News. Microbiology stories hitting the headlines' item on the Nature Journal's 'Microbiology Community Forum' entitled 'Curly-wurly Blooms' on Feb. 16th written by the Forum's Editor Heidi Burdett.

This news feed covers major news in microbiology such as the Ebola and Zika virus and antibiotic resistance issues.

It is probably rare for a dedicated microscopy enthusiast's work to impact in a major science news outlet. So well done Wim!


https://naturemicrobiologycommunity.nat ... rly-blooms

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Post by jswatts »

Lovely work as always, Wim. Thanks!

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Post by discomorphella »

Awesome combination of history of science and microscopy. Its amazing what Leewenhoek was able to discern squinting through his comparatively tiny lens. I wonder what he'd say if he could glance through a pair of 28 mm FOV oculars...
Great article.


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