Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Microbes and Middle Schools

Fig.1. Students at Mills Park Middle School studying how dandelions recruit different microbial communities in various soil types (Credit: Laura Cochrane, Mills Park Middle School).

Editor’s Note: For our third installment in the International Year of Soils series, we spoke with Dr. Julia Stevens about her work with soil microbiology and connecting students to science. To learn more about her work with middle school students, click here.

For Julia Stevens, a challenging aspect of teaching microbiology to middle schoolers is the sheer scope of something so small.

“We’re talking about something that you can’t see, that the numbers are in the millions. The whole idea of both big and small is mind-boggling for people,” she said.

Stevens is a researcher at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences whose work with host-microbe interactions requires students to get their hands a little dirty. She works with teachers to craft lesson plans for a citizen science project that asks students to study how different soils affect the growth of dandelions.

This project is an adaptation of her own research on how soil microbes affect - and are affected by - their host and the environment. The dandelion is an excellent research organism because it is so successful in good and bad soils, which means the microbes around their roots are extremely efficient in pulling in nutrients from nearby. This plant has the added benefit of being easily identifiable for her middle school groups, who send in samples of different soil types that had dandelions growing in them.

Stevens extracts DNA from each student's sample and barcodes specific sequences to create a picture of the microbial community. The overall shift in community composition from just soil to a full-grown dandelion shows how the plant recruits beneficial microbes from various soil types to aid its growth.

“Different types of soils host this different soil community of microorganisms. In each of these different soil types, you get different diversity of bacteria and fungi ... They’re not in completely different taxa, they’re just there in different abundances,” Stevens said.

Fig.2. Plate of microorganisms that were cultured from the soil (Credit: Julia Stevens).

Culturing the Unculturable

So why do soil microbes matter? Although microorganisms are often too small to be seen, they are vital in many natural processes, from fermentation to decomposition. A recent interest in microbial communities - along with improved techniques to study them on a genetic level - spurred research in how and why microbes do what they do. Stevens’ work with microbes that help invasive species grow is important to examine how these tiny organisms interact with their host and the soil around them. Unfortunately, there are some barriers to her research.

Even with the powers of modern genetic techniques, the ability to understand microbial function is limited. Genomes can be sequenced, but we can really only infer function when we recognize a gene. Additionally, the presence of a bacteria’s DNA in the soil does not mean that it is actively growing. That DNA may belong to microbes in cyst form, dormant, or even dead.

So Stevens looks to culturing bacteria in lab to see how they grow and what they need to grow. Even though only 1 percent of the entire bacterial community can be cultured, that small percentage can still inform how certain genes are characterized.

“Where are we seeing changes in community diversity and does that imply a change in function? Or is the function the same, it’s just a different actor in the role of a play,” Stevens said.

Fig.3. A teacher shows a recently picked dandelion from the citizen science project (Credit: Lea Shell, NCSU).

Reaching Students and Scientists

Ultimately the bacteria Stevens grows wind up in her culture collection of invasive species associated bacteria. This collection began during her dissertation on lionfish at the University of Alabama where she found a third of culturable bacteria on lionfish skin actually inhibited local fish pathogens. So far, Stevens has cultures from lionfish and dandelions, with plans to add microbial communities associated with an invasive planthopper species which recently appeared in Pennsylvania.

“It’s really creating the cultures and curating them and getting as much information as I can on them for my own research, but then also as a source for somebody who might be interested in another aspect of invasive species associated microbes,” Stevens said.

In addition to providing a resource for other researchers, this collection offers yet another way to engage students in science. Culture-based assays allow non-microbiologists, whether they are students or museum guests, to actually see the microbes active in soil. Stevens finds that once people go beyond their “microbes are gross” mindset, they can learn about how bacteria and fungi are essential to everyday processes.

“The big thing, working here at the museum, it’s not just outreach, but communicating science,” she said.

From citizen science to culture collections, Stevens hopes to connect people to the importance of soil microbiology, which is a hot topic for ongoing biomedical and agricultural research. The necessary lesson for both middle schoolers and scientists is that these tiny organisms have a big effect on the world around them.

Harris, J. (2009, July). Soil Microbial Communities and Restoration Ecology: Facilitators or Followers? Science, 31 (325): 573-574. doi: 101126/science.1172975

National Research Council (US) Committee on Metagenomics: Challenges and Functional Applications. (2007). The New Science of Metagenomics: Revealing the Secrets of Our Microbial Planet. Washington (DC): National Academies Press. Retrieved from


citizen science
Scientific research completed in large part through public participation, from data collection and analysis, to developing or testing technologies.
DNA barcoding
A technique used for characterizing species by sequencing just a short piece of DNA that acts as a genetic marker for that species. Different sequences are used for animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria.
A method used to multiply microorganisms by letting them grow and reproduce in or on a growth media which promotes the growth of only specific microbes.
culture collections
A repository of strains of microorganisms, which preserve microbial biodiversity and can provide material for research on particular strains.


  1. Quite interesting experience.I'm also a fan of microbiology. And your explanation reminds me of my school days of learning this part.

  2. hey! education is very important to everyone no matter how educated you are the matter is you should be educated. the living style, manners are because of education, if you are not have higher education then don't worry you can got job in companies who write my film review cheap this is an amazing opportunity spcially for those who have good in english and know about these things.

  3. I furthermore retrieve my university days when event society organized Plantation day. In this phase, we saw those plants which we never see before. As well as they guide us about all the benefits and specialty of the specific plant which was really illuminating. I ordered to USA Cheap essay writing service for the achievement of essay on a plantation in which they represent plantation stories with creative storytelling and charge just $4/page.

  4. I really want to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article. You have a bright future ahead. We are providing help and support for students who find difficult in writing essay assignments. Visit

  5. Thank you so much for providing the important information. If ever you feel any problem in writing something you can click here Assignment Help Online
    Java assignment help
    Accounting Homework Help

  6. The report writers of Ireland Assignment Help can solve your assignments problems. We present best services for MBA students. Our expert writers have made more than 10000 assignment and provided the best report writing help. Contact our experts at

  7. Reva has been a professional educator in a popular college of UK. She has been programming assignment help for GetAssignment Help online throughout the previous ten years. She wull help you in your assignment and get good grades

    Programming Assignment Help

    programming language assignment help

    best programming assignment help website

    online programming assignment help

  8. Hi guys! Thanks for this impressive and informative post. I hope that it'll be useful for me. By the way, you can order an online book report . ‘write my book report’ – this is a request from the students who find it difficult to differentiate between a book report and a book review and are afraid of making mistakes. There you can get professional assistance or order different kinds of assignments.

  9. Teaching Microbes to Middle schoolers must be a great challenge, as something so minute that can only be seen through a microscope and to keep a child still and understand what’s going on is a tough task. That’s why they should be taught the advantages and disadvantages of written communication so instead of only verbal learning, they should be taught how to understand written as well.

  10. At other times, it is not about the unwillingness to get the college homework fulfilled but the time and the motivation to best essay writing service reviews without distraction. Most students will procrastinate till the homework is due only to give the famous excuse of “the dog ate my homework!”

  11. Microorganisms for children. Microorganisms, additionally called microbes, are extremely tiny organisms that may best be seen beneath a microscope. Microorganisms are one of the Software Companies In Pakistan maximum various organisms and they encompass bacteria, fungi, archaea, protists, green algae, plankton and amoeba. A few scientists also classify viruses as microorganisms.

  12. Some specialists expect micro colleges have the capability to no longer most effective revive the only-room faculty residence idea of yore, however also shake up the Best CRM Software in Dubai private college quarter by means of imparting dad and mom a notably personalized education for their kids at lower fee than conventional personal colleges. However what, precisely, is a micro school?

  13. Training may be very crucial to all and sundry no matter how educated you are the matter is you have to be knowledgeable. The dwelling fashion, manners are due to Write My Research Paper education, I moreover retrieve my university days whilst occasion society prepared plantation day. On this phase, we saw the ones plants which we never see before.

  14. As well as giving an asset to different analysts, this assortment offers one more Car Dent Repair Cost Dubai approach to connect with understudies in science. Culture-based examines permit non-microbiologists, regardless of whether they are understudies or historical center visitors, to really see the organisms dynamic in soil. Stevens finds that Oil And Filter Change Service In Dubai once individuals go past their "organisms are gross" outlook, they can find out about how microorganisms and parasites are crucial for regular cycles.

  15. This indicates third-party series businesses may also depend upon client-supplied e-mail addresses. Simply consider to encompass the specified opt-out/unsubscribe language in the body of every purchaser-going through electronic mail and Tyre Shop Near Me, as a recurring practice, ask consumers to verify their consent so one can email the specific deal with.

  16. Mention collection improvement and maximum librarians think of the choice of recent materials for the library. Weeding Cargo In Dubai - disposing of library substances from your series - is an frequently forgotten, but crucial part of series improvement. In this replace.

  17. Micro organism are unmarried-celled microorganisms. Their mobile shape is precise in that they don't have a nucleus and maximum bacteria have mobile partitions much like plant cells. They arrive in all types of shapes together with rods Hotel Supplies, spirals, and spheres. A few micro organism can "swim" round the use of lengthy tails called flagella.

  18. You could introduce your college students to bacteria by means of looking and discussing a video lesson, having them research and gift a micro organism O Level School In Karachi, and giving them a quiz. They may be divided into six foremost types: bacteria, archaea, fungi, protozoa, algae, and viruses.

  19. Do not waste countless hours on your college assignments anymore. Get Test Bank For Campbell Biology In Focus Plus Masteringbiology With Etext Access Card Package and work smart with better results.

  20. Become one of the satisfied students using Test Bank For Child Development A Cultural Approach 3rd Edition for their college and earn top grades.

  21. Exams are easier with the TestBanks21 assistance. Find best selling Test Bank For High Acuity Nursing 7th Edition and solution manuals and be on the top of your class today.

  22. Amazing blogs share more this is so inspiring researched I appreciate this take exam for me check assignment help solutions.

  23. Unlock the potential of your adult toy business to the fullest with a dedicated merchant account. Ensure fast and secure payment processing for adult products. This specialized adult toys merchant account online offers features such as fast payment approvals, multi-currency support, and numerous options to accept payments. Safeguard customer privacy and build trust with strong fraud prevention measures. Maximize sales and expand your adult toy business.

  24. This blog is a goldmine of harness racing insights and winning tips. From big wins to track news, it's a must-read for any racing enthusiast. Keep those winning updates coming! Abogados de Divorcio Elmira Nueva York

  25. Reputable tutoring services in Lahore offer a selection of qualified tutors, allowing parents and students to choose someone who aligns with their specific academic goals and personality. A good match between tutor and student can significantly enhance the learning experience, making the education journey not only successful but also enjoyable.