Microbiology in Schools Workshop

Dr Christine Fenton and Michael Fenton,  Auckland University, 30th November 2010
NZMS conference 2010
"I found this workshop extremely valuable. You have given me a fantastic range of ideas to draw from and sources to look at. "

one of many happy customers...

The fascinating unseen world ...

The Good
The role of microbes in, on, and around, us is becoming increasingly important as researcher find these life forms in previously unexpected places. Pseudomonas has been implicated in cloud formation in the atmosphere. New anti-cancer compounds have been found in Streptomyces related organisms from the sea bed.  A new oil-degrading microbe closely related to Oceanospirillales  has been gobbling up the oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The Bad
In contrast, high school teaching programmes tend to devote little time to these life forms, almost as if their small size mean they are of little importance! Even worse, few school teachers engage in practical microbiology investigations; and their is evidence that the majority of schools engage in unsafe practices when carrying out  microbiology investigations.

The remedy
Presenting the unseen world of microbiology to students in an interesting way is very important. It is from this short experience at high school that the spark of  interest is lit in our budding young Geneticists and Microbiologists. The workshop included practical hands-on activities that  could be used in classroom teaching using resources that are accessible to schools, while the emphasis was on operating within the Ministry of Education Guidelines for Health and Safety.

The workshop ... 

Dr Mike Taylor was one of a series of guest speakers breaking up the practical sessions with short presentations about their research.

Other speakers included
Asoc Prof Gillian Lewis and Dr Susan Turner
At the lab A very well resourced laboratory and a 'full-house'.

School teachers and school lab technicians made the most of the one day workshop. 

Isolating protozoa from termites ...  

Under the Animals Welfare Act, termites are not classified as animals so therefore are not subject to ethics approval. Termites are live at the beginning of this procedure so that the gut flora is still live and motile when we view them under the microscope.  In particular, the protozoa in the gut are quite large and interesting to observe as they ingest what they find in the fluid around them. 

Termites are best known for their destruction of timber homes in certain parts of the world causing $750 million worth of damage each year in Australia alone.  They have also generated a lot of interest due to their contribution of methane (a greenhouse gas) to the atmosphere, and in particular, their potential as efficient producers of biofuels.  The symbiotic relationship that exists in the gut of the termite is linked to these important attributes.  It has been estimated that half of the termite’s weight can be due to the microorganisms in the gut.  The termites’ gut represents a highly complex, three-way symbiosis between protozoa, prokaryotes and the termite itself.

Decaying Pine trees are an excellent source of termites with the most likely species being found being NZ natives: Kalotermes brouni, Stolotermes inopinus, S. ruficeps. You can collect a clump of rotting wood the day before the laboratory procedure.

rotting wood

Cutting off the ehad

protozoa from termite gut
Photo of cilliated protozoa. Note the particles of wood that have been engulfed.

Video clip of protozoa from  the gut of a termite showing cillia sweeping the suroundings for food

  • Use forceps to transfer a termite from the rotting wood to a plastic petri dish. Use a dissecting microscope to aid in quickly removing its head with a scalpel.
  • Remove the termite’s gut contents using the forceps and break it up using the tip of the forceps.
  • Add a drop of 0.6% NaCl solution to the gut material and then transfer a drop of the material using a pipette to a microscope slide. Add a coverslip.
  • View under the lowest magnification compound lens, then progress to the 40 x objective lens. (With microscope work you always start with the lowest magnification objective lens first, focus, then progress to higher lens.  
Procedure from Dr Mike Taylor

The rest of the programme included looking at:
  • Plate pouring – what agar recipes work, which don’t and why                                     
  • Antibiotics / antiseptic activity
  • Fungi and Yeasts – forgotten microbes
  • Microbiologically sourced enzymes – wash powder/insecticide (protease activity)
  • Yoghurt/cheese making/bread making – focus on the microbes (talk / theory)
  • Fuel cells – demonstration / observation
  • Bioluminescent bacteria – observation / demonstration

Further support and ideas ...  

Visit the main microbiology page here for more investigations, cell culture notes, etc


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