The Probiotic Chronicle: A Journey Through Time

Exploring the Evolution of Probiotics from 1905 to Today

From their humble beginnings in 1905 to the cutting-edge innovations of today, let’s try to unravel the story behind these microscopic superheroes.

1905 – The Probiotics Era

The use of probiotics dates back to times before microbes were discovered. Indeed, ancient civilizations like the Egyptians depicted fermented milk products in their hieroglyphs. However, our journey begins with the groundbreaking work of the scientist Élie Metchnikoff in 1905. He proposed the revolutionary idea that the increased longevity in the Bulgarian population was due to microorganisms, such as lactobacilli, grown in fermented milk commonly consumed in that region, and not to the product itself as it was previously believed. This pioneering opinion laid the foundation for the field of probiotic research.

 

1920s-1940s – Early Discoveries

In the decades following Metchnikoff’s work, researchers made significant strides in understanding the role of lactic acid bacteria in human health. In one of the earliest human clinical studies conducted in 1922, 30 patients suffering from chronic constipation, diarrhea, or eczema were treated with Lactobacillus acidophilus, and health improvements were observed in all three conditions.

1950s-1970s – Advancements in Research

The advent of modern microbiology techniques in the mid-20th century led to a deeper understanding of probiotics. Scientists started isolating and identifying specific beneficial bacterial strains and uncovering their mechanisms. The word “probiotic” was first used by Lilley and Stillwell in 1965 to describe substances secreted by one bacterium that stimulate the growth of another bacterium, thus having an activity opposite to that of an antibiotic. It was only in 1974 that Parker used the term “probiotic” to identify a dietary supplement of microbial origin with the definition “organisms and substances which contribute to intestinal microbial balance.”

1980s-2010s – Mainstream Recognition

In 1989, Fuller modified the definitions to “a live microbial feed supplement which beneficially affects the host animal by improving its intestinal microbial balance.” The internationally accepted definition of “probiotic” today is the one stated in 2001 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO): “Live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host”.

Thanks to innovative molecular approaches that allowed a well-defined characterization, the probiotic properties were related to a specific strain and not only to a taxonomic specie, creating the strain-specificity concept. Throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries, probiotic research expanded rapidly, with studies exploring their role in various conditions, including gastrointestinal disorders, vaginal infections, immune function, and even mental health.

2010s-Present – Next Generation Probiotics

Today, we stand at the forefront of probiotic research and innovation. Recently, technological advances, such as next-generation sequencing and bioinformatics, have allowed scientists to discover and study new strains, previously considered “uncultivable”. This understanding has led to the rise of next-generation probiotics (NGP), derived from microorganisms isolated and identified on the basis of comparative microbiome analyses.

In conclusions, these years of research have confirmed that the gut microbiota plays a pivotal role in overall well-being. The future of probiotics holds the potential for improved, personalized and targeted approaches that prevent the risk of disease onset and integrate standard treatments.


References

RETTGER LF, CHEPLIN HA. BACILLUS ACIDOPHILUS AND ITS THERAPEUTIC APPLICATION. Arch Intern Med (Chic). 1922;29(3):357–367. doi:10.1001/archinte.1922.00110030082005

Lynne V. McFarland, From Yaks to Yogurt: The History, Development, and Current Use of Probiotics, Clinical Infectious Diseases, Volume 60, Issue suppl_2, May 2015, Pages S85–S90, https://doi.org/10.1093/cid/civ054

Abouelela ME, Helmy YA. Next-Generation Probiotics as Novel Therapeutics for Improving Human Health: Current Trends and Future Perspectives. Microorganisms. 2024; 12(3):430. https://doi.org/10.3390/microorganisms12030430

Follow us on social media to make sure you don’t miss the next articles!

Sign up for the newsletter! Receive all new Probiotic’s Guide articles for free

    Born in 2022 as a spin-off of ROELMI HPC, we aim at becoming a leader in biotechnology thanks to all expertise gained in these years, with a huge number of projects fulfilled at worldwide level as well as the network of researchers, contributing to a multi-faced scientific approach.

    AUTHOR

    Marta Lo Re

    SynBalance

    R&D Assistant

    Latest Probiotic's Guide