There are so many ways in which studying bacteria is useful from an educational standpoint.
It enables students to envision the lives and activities of the smallest and most ubiquitous forms of life on Earth and relate their activities to their own. All bacteria survive by getting resources, reproducing, and warding off prey. They also respond to stimuli, have a penchant for certain foods, and in our own bodies, outnumber our cells. Some are dangerous, some are innocuous, and all are mysterious given their microscopic size.
We started our adventure learning about bacteria by doing a quick web search to return general facts about them. I gave the students 20 minutes to uncover as many things as possible about them and then created a master list of bacterial information. This included everything about reproduction to hand sanitizers to their ability to survive in space under the right conditions. After that, we began our first experiment by thinking about spices and the original purpose of spices in preserving food. I purchased 4 spices: cayenne, cumin, paprika, and black pepper. I gave the students a simple experimental goal and asked them to design an experiment to determine if spices inhibit bacterial growth.
I gave them petri dishes, glassware, agar, spices, and nothing else as the students looked up how to prepare the plates for the bacteria to grow. It was interesting for me to watch them struggle with things that as a scientist seemed second nature – like how to dissolve the agar, how much of it to use, and when to apply the spices (in the agar directly vs. sprinkled on top). What resulted was a wide range of plates with different combinations of agar andspices. As a whole, they were all curious as to whether or not bacteria would grow and what it would look like. Several days later when they returned to lab, they saw that bacteria was growing on practically all the plates which disagreed with most of their ideas regarding how spices should inhibit bacterial growth. Some even saw growth on cayenne and cumin that looked like mold. As I told them, scientists can’t just make assumptions and that more analysis needs to be done, so we saved those plants with the hope of purifying DNA and sending it out for sequencing.
For their follow up experiment, I wanted to them to mutate their bacteria. There are a great many ties to some very socially relevant problems regarding bacteria and drug resistance. I shared with them the case study of tuberculosis in Russia as a particularly dangerous example (http://www.nature.com/news/russia-s-drug-resistant-tb-spreading-more-easily-1.14589). For this, I wanted them to take bacteria from their spice plates and replate it with various substances added that might confer resistance, such as ethanol.
We’ve discussed ethanol in various capacities regarding its antiseptic abilities. They all know that it and isopropanol are used in products like Purell that boast of killing 99.99% of bacteria. We discussed what that actually means and that if a trillion bacteria exist (a likely scenario for most surfaces), there are still millions that survive possibly with something genetic that will enable them to propagate back to their original numbers within a matter of days or even hours. Indeed the students saw that ethanol didn’t seem to inhibit growth when stretched out for a long period of time and in a couple cases, encouraged growth. This was a truly fascinating thing to witness and taught them a valuable lesson regarding the life cycle and adaptability of bacteria.
Our final experiment consisted of our first steps in classifying bacteria with a simple gram stain. This tests for the presence of a carbohydrate called lipopolysaccharide, a molecule that helps bacteria to resist antibiotics. Some strains have it and others do not and through a series of dyes, the LPS containing bacteria are revealed colorimetrically. For the first time in this series of tests, I gave them an exact protocol. At first glance, following protocols seems counterintuitive to creativity but the ability to follow steps and get a result is extremely important to life. After all, when one is putting together furniture, it’s probably not a good idea to skip or veer from the steps. In addition, getting a result is not the same as getting a prescribed one and most students saw mostly gram positive but also several colonies of gram negative. This showed students that different types of bacteria were growing in their cultures. Ideally, we would have loved to sequence all the bacteria but unfortunately, DNA sequencing is still an expensive endeavor when done with many samples.
This series of experiments provided a valuable introduction to bacteria, their life cycles, and ability to survive and thrive in a variety of conditions. By doing this, we took the microscopic and brought it out to be observed by the naked eye so that we may truly see life on the smallest scales up close.