Students get swabbing for bacteria

07 September 2015

Interview with 

Lucy Robinson and Dr Anne Jungblut, Natural History Museum, London

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The Microverse project launched recently at 130 colleges and schools across the UK. Recruited by the Natural History Museum, London, participanting A-Level biology students were shown how to swab their local buildings to discover which micro-organisms live on what buildings. Project manager Lucy Robinson hopes the data will be academically rigorous and publishable, as she explained to Graihagh Jackson...

Lucy - The Microverse is a Citizen Science project and it came about by one of our researchers, Dr Anne Jungblut, coming to us saying that she wanted to collect a lot of data across the UK on the bacteria and other microorganisms that grow on buildings. She wanted our help in getting members of the public involved in collecting those samples.

Graihagh - And it’s not just member of public. You sort of narrowed down and focused actually into school children, A-level students. So, what would they do? You send them out a pack and then what happens?

Lucy - Schools across the UK signed up to take part. We sent them a pack containing all the equipment they would need and then the schools took that, went outside, chose a building near to them, and they collected 10 swabs of microorganisms from that building.

Graihagh - And we’re standing outside the Natural History Museum today. It’s ample opportunity to take a swab.

Lucy - We can give it a go. So, I've got the kit here that we gave to the schools. So, we can take a sterile swab here and then I need to dip it into the sterile water, and then we can rub it on the wall to collect the sample.

Graihagh - It’s looking pretty grapy already.

Lucy - So, I'm collecting a sample from glass here and you can already see that there's actually black on the white cotton ball bit there. So, we can see some of that obviously is going to be pollution. We’ve got a road nearby, but some of that is actually the microorganisms that are living on that glass.

Graihagh - How do you make sure it doesn’t get contaminated?

Lucy - Yeah. So the school students put on a pair of plastic gloves to collect their sample and then they put the sample straight into some DNA preservative liquid. It captures that DNA and keeps it in a good state.

Graihagh - How many swabs have you got back so far?

Lucy - So, 130-ish schools have taken part and they’ve each done 30 swabs each. So, we have thousands and thousands of these to process, just what keeps Anne and her colleagues very busy in the lab.

Anne - So, my name is Anne Jungblut and I'm a researcher here at the Natural History Museum. So, when we get them back, the first thing is we’re going to freeze them and then later on, we come back to the lab to extract the DNA. Once we get the DNA, we amplify a piece called like the 16S gene which is like a piece of DNA all bacteria have. We amplify it and then afterwards, we sequence this and that allows us to characterise all bacteria that we have from the samples.

Graihagh - Why do you want to characterise all these bacteria samples? What's of interest to you?

Anne - Well, it’s really exciting. So, we have like all these environments but we actually don’t really know what's happening in the cities.

Graihagh - So, once you have the samples you need to amplify this DNA, I'm assuming you’ve done some on the Natural History Museum, what sort of things have you been finding? Any surprises in there?

Anne - So, we have found lots of different species. So, we found for example, cyanobacteria. They're also called like blue-green algae and they sometimes make the walls appear like greenish.

Graihagh - Is that the slimy stuff you often get on when it’s really wet and things become a bit slippery, particularly on wood, I seem to remember?

Anne - Yeah, it’s part of this. So, you have the cyanobacteria and then you also have some micro algae, but they basically make slime.

Graihagh - Anything else?

Anne - We also found some organisms which are potentially interesting for like biotechnology.

Graihagh - When you say use for everything in the lab and biotechnology, what sort of use does it have?

Anne - So like the streptococcus is like an organism that has this enzyme called DNA polymerase which basically helps in the duplication of DNA. So every organism, we all have it, but these organisms, it’s really cool because it’s functional at 50 degrees. And so, when you extract that enzyme, you can then use it in a lab like we do. So, everybody who would amplify DNA in a machine everywhere in the world uses that enzyme.

Graihagh - And it’s just growing casually on the buildings.

Anne - Well potentially. So, we haven't found the exact match, but we’ve potentially found relatives to that species.

Graihagh - Ultimately, you're hoping to publish?

Anne - Yeah and it’s going to be part of I think several really good publications.

Graihagh - It looks like Anne is getting some really interesting results already. What sort of reactions have you had so far from people that have taken part?

Lucy - We’ve had really positive reactions from the students and the teachers that have taken part, in that this is real science.

Graihagh - And I assume this is restarting up as the school term starts and these 130 schools will be moving on with their next set of A-level biology students.

Lucy - So, we’re hoping the project will continue in future years. We’re currently fundraising to keep it going and we’re still analysing the data from last year. So, there's still plenty more work to be done on the data that we’ve got.

Graihagh - Is it only the one propagation about the species? Are you hoping to do more with this and look at how this might affect or impact how we teach?

Lucy - There are two really interesting elements to this project. The first is the actual science research that we’re doing that you’ve heard from Anne about. But the other side is, how do we do science? And so, we’ll also be writing up how we’ve gone about running this project, how we got the schools involved, the much wider benefits of doing that beyond getting our science research. The museum has also reached out to over 100 schools, started a dialogue with those teachers and really, sort of spread the word about what science is about. So that in itself is a really in part of the project that we’re going to be writing up...

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