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Bringing Microbial Biology into the Classroom

NSF Award:

CAREER: Sulfur Oxidation in Chlorobium tepidum, a Model Phototrophic Bacterium  (University of Delaware)

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Before the work of Sergei Winogradsky, biologists thought of microorganisms as a cause of disease and not much more. The father of environmental microbiology, however, was interested in the interactions between microbes and the places where they thrived. "Winogradsky columns" are self-contained, miniature ecosystems where the interactions among microbial communities can be seen. Winogradsky columns are a new feature in K-12 classrooms around Delaware thanks to Thomas Hanson of the University of Delaware.

Hanson's research is partly focused on understanding how Chlorobium tepidum bacteria use reduced sulfur compounds, that are toxic to humans, as a source of energy for photosynthesis. Hanson is using C. tepidum as a model system to understand the metabolic processes of sulfur oxidation in anaerobic environments. These metabolic processes have profound implications on global sulfur cycling and climate change.

Hanson's work integrates research and education by involving students at different levels. Winogradsky columns created by students in the classroom foster populations of phototrophic sulfur bacteria, like C. tepidum, that Hanson's undergraduates then isolate and characterize in the lab, providing data back to the classrooms via a website. Teachers are also trained in the basic biological, chemical and geological interactions that make Winogradsky columns function.

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