Under the Microscope: Cork and the
Discovery of Cells

Magnified Image of cork to show the individual cork cells
Shown here is an image of cork under high magnification. Cork is a material sourced from the bark of a particular oak tree, Quercus Suber, and its characteristic cell structure is suitable for many uses, such as sealing wine bottles.

The microscope is a powerful tool to have around the winery.  Not only is it essential for observing yeast and bacteria inside wine samples, it also allows us to look very closely at other materials—cork, for instance. Studying cork this minutely allows us both to understand its structure and to fine-tune the way our vintages age.

This photograph provides a highly magnified version of the flat end of a cork. The honeycomb-like surfaces you see constitute the borders of actual cork cells. The image recalls a scene very similar to the one where English scientist Robert Hooke gazed at a cork through the lens of an early microscope.  He became the first person to identify the organism he called the “cell” as a building block of life. (Word has it that he chose this specific expression because the structures he was looking at reminded him of prison or monastery cells.)

If you look carefully at this image, you can imagine just why cork is so well-suited for sealing. When one is inserted into the neck of a bottle, its myriad cells act like miniature suction cups and adhere to the glass—thereby providing an excellent seal. These tiny, compressible “boxes” vigorously repel water and air, as Hooke himself described in his 1665 publication Micrographia.

It is a beautiful coincidence that the organic material we use to close wine bottles occupies such a distinguished place in the history of biology.