Photosynthesis Research

, Volume 46, Issue 3, pp 473–478 | Cite as

A serendipic legacy: Erwin Esmarch's isolation of the first photosynthetic bacterium in pure culture

  • Howard Gest
Historical Corner


During the 1880's, Erwin von Esmarch was a junior associate (‘Assistent’) of Robert Koch studying bacteria of medical significance. In 1887, he isolated the first example of spiral-shaped bacteria in pure culture, from the dry residue of a dead mouse that he had suspended sometime earlier in Berlin tap-water. Under certain conditions, colonies of the organism were the color of red wine, and this led Esmarch to name the bacterium Spirillum rubrum. Twenty years later, Hans Molisch demonstrated that S. rubrum, an apparent heterotroph, was in fact a non-oxygenic purple photosynthetic bacterium, and it was renamed Rhodospirillum rubrum. Esmarch was a careful investigator and his classic paper of 1887 details the serendipitous isolation and general characteristics of the first pure culture of an anoxyphototroph, which later played a prominent role as an experimental system for study of basic aspects of bacterial photosynthesis. This report includes an English translation of his original paper (in German), a commentary on the historical significance of ‘Esmarch's spirillum’, and a summary of Esmarch's career.

Key words

Spirillum rubrum Rhodospirillum rubrum Rhodospirillum centenum photosynthetic bacteria anoxyphototrophs polyhydroxybutyrate Erwin Esmarch 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • Howard Gest
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Photosynthetic Bacteria Group, Department of BiologyIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA
  2. 2.Department of History and Philosophy of ScienceIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA

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