This Day in Science History: The discovery of viruses – “the filterable agents”(12/2/1892)


You are here

On 12/2/1892, the first evidence for the existence of viruses was presented: Dimitri Ivanovsky, a young Russian scientist, suggested before the Academy of Sciences of St. Petersburg the existence of a disease agent smaller than any known before. This revelation was the first step in a long series of observations and experiments that led to the discovery of viruses. 
Tobacco mosaic virus
Ivanovsky showed that a certain tobacco disease (the tobacco mosaic disease) was caused by a filterable infectious agent: he passed infected sap through what was then considered to be a bacteria-proof Chamberland filter made from unglazed porcelain. The Chamberland filter was a common instrument of bacteriological research in those days, assumed to hold back the majority of bacteria, thanks to its small pores. After inoculating the filtrate into healthy plants, Ivanovsky observed that the filtrate reproduced the disease. This filtration experiment, therefore, was the first step in the discovery of viruses. The term “filterable agents” was the name used to describe these organisms well before the term “viruses” was specifically applied to them.
Ever since, the field of virology research has dramatically grown, with viruses found and explored in almost every environment on earth – from the most notorious ones, such as the Influenza (flu), Ebola or HIV viruses, to the numerous unknown viruses that thrive in the soil, sea or inside our bodies.

At the Weizmann Institute of Science, several research groups explore the dynamics and survival mechanisms of viruses in various habitats. Here is a selection of such research:
Source: A Lustig and A J Levine (August 1992). "One hundred years of virology". J. Virol. 66 (8): 4629–31. PMC 241285. PMID 1629947.