, Volume 39, Issue 2, pp 373-406

The Role of Microbes in Agriculture: Sergei Vinogradskii’s Discovery and Investigation of Chemosynthesis, 1880–1910

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Abstract

In 1890, Sergei Nikolaevich Vinogradskii (Winogradsky) proposed a novel life process called chemosynthesis. His discovery that some microbes could live solely on inorganic matter emerged during his physiological research in 1880s in Strassburg and Zurich on sulfur, iron, and nitrogen bacteria. In his nitrification research, Vinogradskii first embraced the idea that microbiology could have great bearing on agricultural problems. His critique of agricultural chemists and Kochian-style bacteriologists brought this message to the broader agricultural community, resulting in an heightened interest in biological, rather than chemical methods to investigate soil processes. From 1891 to 1910, he directed the microbiological laboratory at the Imperial Institute of Experimental Medicine in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he expanded his chemosynthesis research to a broad investigation of the manifold significance of autotrophic organisms in soil processes. This work and that of his students attracted the serious attention of agricultural chemists and soil scientists in Russia and abroad, changing essentially the way they understood and investigated the role of microbes in the soil. His student, Vasilii Omelianskii, effectively integrated Vinogradskii’s approach into Russian and Soviet, and international agricultural microbiology. Vinogradskii’s activities in the late 19th century reflect the changes occurring more broadly in science. At that time, microbiologists such as Louis Pasteur, Eugenius Warming, and Martianus Beijerinck were contributing new laboratory methods and theoretical perspectives to incipient disciplines closely related to agriculture: ecology, soil science, and soil microbiology.