Bacteria were the only form of life on earth for 2 billion years. They were first observed by Antony van Leeuwenhoek in the 17th cent.; bacteriology as an applied science began to develop in the late 19th cent. as a result of research in medicine and in fermentation processes, especially by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch.
Bacteria are remarkably adaptable to diverse environmental conditions: they are found in the bodies of all living organisms and on all parts of the earth—in land terrains and ocean depths, in arctic ice and glaciers, in hot springs, and even in the stratosphere. Our understanding of bacteria and their metabolic processes has been expanded by the discovery of species that can live only deep below the earth's surface and by species that thrive without sunlight in the high temperature and pressure near hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor. There are more bacteria, as separate individuals, than any other type of organism; there can be as many as 2.5 billion bacteria in one gram of fertile soil.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.