Microbiomes: belly buttons and plant leaves

The Wellcome Trust-funded Invisible You – Human Microbiome Exhibition at the Eden Project (see here) had a number of cool public engagement events going on in the opening week. One of these projects straddling the boundaries of art and science was by Brooklyn-based Joana Ricou who visited our lab as part of this event. Visitors could have a portrait taken from their non-human self. Specifically, they could swab their belly buttons and have this plated out on an agar plate. Each such portrait thus shows the unique, cultivable microflora at one particular bodysite for each participant. After incubation on site, Joana photographed the plates in Penryn, later added some colour digitally and uploaded them onto the dedicated website microbialart.tumblr.com. All anonimized portraits can be browsed here and project participants can locate and download their own portrait using a personal code. More details about the project can be found here. Below you can see my belly button portrait: quite a lot of diversity at quite a high density. I choose to interpret this as me having a very healthy belly button!010 MichLast week I had the pleasure to host 14 school kids from London as part of a three-day visit to our campus, engaging in a range of biology projects. It is quite a challenge to do a microbial ecology project with students in only an hour or two: any cells that are sampled do not have the time to grow up into colonies. I repeated a session that I did last year with Britt Koskella in another school outreach event focusing on plant leaf bacteria. Just like our belly buttons, plant leaves are covered in bacteria. This ‘phyllosphere’ is likely to be very important in plant health (see here for more information on the topic). After a general introduction, I asked the students to come up with hypotheses on where they would expect to find differences in leaf-associated bacteria. They came up with a variety of good questions. For instance, one group asked whether microbiomes where different on the underside compared to the upper surface. Another group asked whether dead leaves differed in their microbiome from fresh leaves. After some discussion, students ventured out on campus to collect leaves, and then went back into the lab to press leaves on agar plates. I had already pressed a leaf on a plate to be able to show them what their own plates would look like. After the weekend, I took pictures of the student’s plates and send it back to them so they could find out whether their questions were answered. Below an example of a leaf-pressed agar plate:IMG_9048

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