The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) was one of the earliest recorded scholars to articulate the theory of spontaneous generation, the notion that life can arise from nonliving matter. Aristotle proposed that life arose from nonliving material if the material contained pneuma (“vital heat”). As evidence, he noted several instances of the appearance of animals from environments previously devoid of such animals, such as the seemingly sudden appearance of fish in a new puddle of water.
This theory persisted into the 17th century, when scientists undertook additional experimentation to support or disprove it. By this time, the proponents of the theory cited how frogs simply seem to appear along the muddy banks of the Nile River in Egypt during the annual flooding. Others observed that mice simply appeared among grain stored in barns with thatched roofs. When the roof leaked and the grain molded, mice appeared. Jan Baptista van Helmont, a 17th century Flemish scientist, proposed that mice could arise from rags and wheat kernels left in an open container for 3 weeks. In reality, such habitats provided ideal food sources and shelter for mouse populations to flourish.
However, one of van Helmont’s contemporaries, Italian physician Francesco Redi (1626–1697), performed an experiment in 1668 that was one of the first to refute the idea that maggots (the larvae of flies) spontaneously generate on meat left out in the open air. He predicted that preventing flies from having direct contact with the meat would also prevent the appearance of maggots. Redi left meat in each of six containers. Two were open to the air, two were covered with gauze, and two were tightly sealed. His hypothesis was supported when maggots developed in the uncovered jars, but no maggots appeared in either the gauze-covered or the tightly sealed jars. He concluded that maggots could only form when flies were allowed to lay eggs in the meat, and that the maggots were the offspring of flies, not the product of spontaneous generation.
In 1745, John Needham (1713–1781) published a report of his own experiments, in which he briefly boiled broth infused with plant or animal matter, hoping to kill all preexisting microbes. He then sealed the flasks. After a few days, Needham observed that the broth had become cloudy and a single drop contained numerous microscopic creatures. He argued that the new microbes must have arisen spontaneously. In reality, however, he likely did not boil the broth enough to kill all preexisting microbes.
Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729–1799) did not agree with Needham’s conclusions, however, and performed hundreds of carefully executed experiments using heated broth. As in Needham’s experiment, broth in sealed jars and unsealed jars was infused with plant and animal matter. Spallanzani’s results contradicted the findings of Needham: Heated but sealed flasks remained clear, without any signs of spontaneous growth, unless the flasks were subsequently opened to the air. This suggested that microbes were introduced into these flasks from the air. In response to Spallanzani’s findings, Needham argued that life originates from a “life force” that was destroyed during Spallanzani’s extended boiling. Any subsequent sealing of the flasks then prevented new life force from entering and causing spontaneous generation.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology