Spontaneous Generation: A Brief History Of Disproving It.

In discussing experiments, it must be mentioned that frequently experiments are improved upon after they’re finished.  Ideally, you would be able to foresee all problems with an experiment before you begin, but that’s not always the case.  Sometimes you think you’ve done something wonder and had the results published, only to find out later that someone else sees a flaw in your work.  Maybe someone else continues your work and publishes their findings.  Let’s look at a case that is rooted in Biology’s history: spontaneous generation.  For centuries, people have realized the correlation between sex and reproduction in humans.  But some living things were thought to come to life on their own–to spontaneously generate.  In other, living organisms came to life from nonliving matter.

In 1668, an Italian physician named Francesco Redi came up with a hypothesis to disprove the idea of spontaneous generation–specifically, the thought that maggots could come to life from meat.  Redi observed that after meat sat out, flies would be attracted to it, and a few days after that maggots would appear.  Redi thought that maggots were from fly eggs too small to be seen.  Redi set up an experiment–with the control and variable groups–to prove his hypothesis that flies produce maggots.  In the experiment, the control group was a piece of meat in an uncovered jar.  The variable group was a piece of meat in a jar covered with gauze; the gauze allowed air through, but not the flies.  After a few days, Redi observed that the control group had maggots on the meat and the variable group didn’t. He then concluded that maggots only form when flies come in contact with meat and that spontaneous generation is not at play.

In the 1700s, an English scientist proposed that spontaneous generation was possible and performed an entirely different experiment that he suggested proved it.  Later, another Italian scientist, improved on that experiment and concluded that Redi was indeed correct the first time.  So for almost 200 years after Redi, there was still much debate as to whether or not spontaneous generation could happen.

Until there was Pasteur.  Louis Pasteur, in 1864, settled the argument once and for all.  Taking the basic idea of the two scientists from the 1700s and answering critics that said air was necessary for life, Pasteur developed a special flask.  It had a curved neck that allowed air in, but would trap any microorganisms and not let them contaminate his findings.

Pasteur's Experiment
Click for full image

Pasteur showed that his flask was free from microorganisms, even though it was open to the air.  For a year, there was no microbial growth. Until Pasteur broke the neck of the flask.  And when microorganisms appeared, he proved to the world that life could only come from other life.  Because of his findings in this and many other experiments throughout his life, Louis Pasteur is considered one of the greatest Biologists in history.

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8 Responses

  1. Nice article – and a really clear image. Thanks!

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  5. but my doubt @ Francesco Redd’s experiment stating contamination was caused by flies, so he find a solution with a meat covered with a gauss allowing air to pass through it. is it still possible for minute organisms in the air to enter and capable of contaminating it…..

    • Yes, there’s no reason to suspect the experiment was done with sterile equipment, but he wasn’t looking to see if >anything< grew, he was looking to see if maggots grew. The flys couldn't get in and the bacteria and fungal spores that could have no way of producing maggots.

  6. thank you so much. this used to be really confusing for me.

  7. I’m considering publishing a medical history textbook through Apple’s iBooks Store for free, but I wanted to make sure it was all right to use your diagram of Pasteur’s experiment. I put a superscript citation in the caption, and the full MLA citation (reproduced below) is in the bibliography. Could I use the image in the book? Thank you.

    MLA citation:
    “Spontaneous Generation: A Brief History Of Disproving It.” Ameoba Mike. WordPress, 6 Oct. 2009. Web. 28 Nov. 2013. .

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