…it’s life, but not as we know it

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

Increased curiosity and the need to obtain better images of microscopic structures eventually led to the development of the light microscope that could magnify specimens up to 1500 times the original size. Visible light that passes through a specimen refracts as it travels through a lens thereby enlarging the final image.

In the 1930s, improved resolutions were obtained by using a stream of electrons instead of light waves; an electron microscope can magnify 1000 times greater than the light microscope. Using these techniques it was possible to visualise viruses so tiny that they were able to infect bacterial cells. Theses viruses were called Bacteriophages. Alien-like particles that can inject their genomes into a host cell. The viral genetic material is replicated by the hosts enzymes to produce hundreds more of the tiny particles. These particles eventually burst out of the cell killing it in the process.

Bacteriophage injecting their genetic contents into a bacterium. Image by Graham Colm.

A single bacteriophage. Image by Hans-Wolfgang Ackermann.

Being able to see images beyond the scope of natural sight has greatly enhanced scientific and medical research. Visualising cell functions has removed the uncertainty that would have obstructed the advancement of many theories and hypotheses. Improvements in microscopy and genetic techniques have revealed that there is far more to the natural world than first imagined. The advent of photography meant that these findings no longer had to remain in the lab or as drawings within books, now an accurate visualisation of experiments and specimens could accompany written diagnoses, thereby increasing the validity of findings.

Additionally, media technology allows immediate access to the scientific results so they can now be distributed internationally. Humans can now see beyond their natural ability and realise that billions of organisms exist in the microscopic biosphere. Additionally, the causative agents of many diseases are no longer a mystery. Yet along with these innovations remained the sinister irony that organisms this tiny could still impose more of a threat to humanity than those with a far greater mass. Humanity has not underestimated this threat, and is slowing winning the war against the threat of extinction through disease. In 1970 WHO announced the complete eradication of the  smallpox virus. Societies no longer had to adopt the extreme behavioural changes stipulated in the Old Testament  in order to avoid the spread of disease.