A Short History of Centrifugation

A Short History of Centrifugation


Centrifuges have already been used since the mid-1400s for processes such as separation of milk. In the following, you can learn more about the history of the laboratory centrifuge.

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.

Gregor Mendel discovered the “laws of inheritance” in experiments in which he genetically crossed pea plants with white and purple flowers and thus established a landmark in the field of biological inheritance.

Antonin Prandtl, a German master brewer, had the idea for a dairy centrifuge to speed up the process of separating cream from milk.

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.

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

Theodor Svedberg, who was a colloid chemist, invented the first ultracentrifuge. His aim was to separate even macromolecules, which requires very high speeds of up to 1,000,000 x g.

The Nobel prize was awarded to Theodor Svedberg for his research in the field of colloid chemistry and the invention of the ultracentrifuge.

Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin (he received the Nobel prize for his work in 1945).

The Belgian medical doctor and cell biologist Albert Claude discovered the process of cell fractionation. This technique consists of several steps: first the cell membrane needs to be destroyed to release the cell contents. Then the cell membrane parts are filtered out and the remaining

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

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 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.

Edward Pickles (a student of Jesse Beams) founded a company called Spinco that specialized in the design and manufacturing of ultracentrifuges.

Spinco introduced the first commercial preparative ultracentrifuge (the ultracentrifuge invented by Svedberg was an analytical instrument only), the Model L. This device was able to spin up to 40,000 rpm.

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.

James Watson and Francis Crick’s groundbreaking manuscript describing the double helix structure of DNA was published in the journal Nature.

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

The discussion about whether DNA replication is conservative, semi-conservative or dispersive was solved by the biologists Matthew Meselson and Franklin Stahl. 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.

Marshall Nirenberg and his post-doctoral fellow Johann Matthaei discovered the first codon of the genetic code and showed that RNA controls the production of specific types of protein.

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.

An innovation in the world of centrifuges is presented at ACHEMA: 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.

The first robotically operated centrifuge was developed by Hettich, dramatically improving work efficiency in high-throughput screening and medical diagnostic laboratories.

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!).

Rotors based on new rotor materials such as FiberliteTM carbon fibre rotors (used in floorstanding centrifuges) can be found in the portfolio of Thermo ScientificTM.

Customers can choose from a wide range of benchtop, floorstanding, and ultracentrifuges designed for their work, whether research, diagnostics or production.

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