A Short History of Centrifugation


Did you know that the history of centrifugation goes back to 1659? Centrifugation evolved ever since and who knows what is to come…

In 1659 the Dutch mathematician and scientist Christiaan Huygens created the term “centrifugal force” in his work “De vi centrifuga”. He also discovered Titan, a moon of Saturn, and wrote the first thesis on probability theory. 

Then, 200 years later in 1864 Antonin Prandtl, a German master brewer, had the idea for a dairy centrifuge to speed up the process of separating cream from milk, which was also the first step to modern milk products with a defined amount of fat. The evolution of centrifuges accelerated and in the following 30 years Friedrich Miescher, a Swiss physician and biologist, used centrifugal force to gain what he called “nuclein” (now known as DNA) from cells, and was therefore the first researcher who isolated nucleic acids (1869).

Shortly after this discovery Gustav De Laval added turbines to Prandtl’s design and thus invented the first continuous cream separator, which revolutionized the dairy industry in 1877.

The demand for higher speed was present and in 1925 Theodor Svedberg, who was a colloid chemist, invented the first ultracentrifuge as an analytical instrument. One year later the Nobel prize was awarded to him for his research and the invention of the ultracentrifuge. His aim was to separate even macromolecules, which requires very high speeds of up to 1,000,000 x g.

In 1930 the Belgian medical doctor and cell biologist Albert Claude discovered the process of cell fractionation in which centrifugation is an essential step. First the cell membrane needs to be destroyed to release the cell contents. Then the cell membrane parts are filtered out and the remaining contents are placed in a centrifuge to separate them. The contents divide into different fractions according to their mass. Claude discovered that each fraction has a specific function in the cell.

At the same time Jesse Beams, an American physicist at the University of Virginia, worked on high vacuum ultracentrifuges to achieve even higher speeds than Svedberg’s ultracentrifuge. His researched was based on the principles of magnetism.

The 1950’s were full of groundbreaking inventions of new techniques centrifuge specialization. So, Albert Claude and his colleague James S. Potter published an innovative paper called “Isolation of chromatin threads from the resting nucleus of leukemic cells” in 1942. In this work, they were able to retrieve ‘chromatin threads’ through a series of centrifugation steps where either the supernatant or the sediment was collected until they reached the desired cell component.

Then, after world war II in 1946/47 Edward Pickles (a student of Jesse Beams) founded a company called Spinco that specialized in the design and manufacturing of ultracentrifuges. The company introduced the first commercial preparative ultracentrifuge in 1949, the Model L. This device could spin up to 40,000 rpm. 

In 1950 the American biochemist Myron K. Brakke used density gradient centrifugation as a separation technique to purify potato yellow dwarf virus. Since that time, this technique has developed into a widely used tool for the purification of macromolecules, viruses and organelles.

Analytical ultracentrifugation evolved when Beckman Instruments, a manufacturer of ultracentrifuges now known as Beckman Coulter, acquired Spinco in 1955. The company developed the Beckman Model E, which became a workhorse in this field. 

Then the long ongoing discussion about whether DNA replication is conservative, semi-conservative or dispersive was solved by the biologists Matthew Meselson and Franklin Stahl in 1958. They labeled the DNA of bacteria across generations using isotopes of nitrogen and used density gradient centrifugation to show that DNA is replicated semi-conservatively.

Since then companies beat each other by inventing new types of centrifuges, rotors and adapters. In 1964 Eppendorf presented the Centrifuge 3200, the first centrifuge to form an integral part of the Eppendorf Microliter System, thus revolutionizing global research in the field of life science. Twelve years later an innovation in the world of centrifuges is presented at ACHEMA 1976: Hettich introduces the first microprocessor-controlled centrifuge, the ROTO MAGNA K4S. This technology was way ahead of its time and would become the standard in centrifuges over the following decades.

In the 1980s Hettich went on showing novelties such as the first robotically operated centrifuge, dramatically improving work efficiency in high-throughput screening and medical diagnostic laboratories. Only a few years later in 1989 Eppendorf launched the legendary centrifuge 5415C, which was one of the first of many small, lightweight, silent Eppendorf microcentrifuges to come (and still can be seen in laboratories!).

New materials for rotors improve longevity and usability of centrifuges from the 2000s on. FiberliteTM carbon fiber rotors (used in floor standing centrifuges) can be found in the portfolio of Thermo ScientificTM. Nowadays customers can choose from a wide range of benchtop, floor standing, and ultracentrifuges designed for their work, whether research, diagnostics or production.

And in the future? Centrifuges will become a part of the smart laboratory: as connected devices, they will be powerful tools in the lab of the future.

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