Monday, November 4, 2013

A Microbial Halloween---2013!

Hallowe'en remains my favorite holiday.  And microbiology is my favorite intellectual topic, as you might have guessed by now.  So like a candy bar that combines two wonderful flavors in a unique way (time for a flashback video!), I have long had a reputation of hybridizing my interests in microbiology with my love of the macabre holiday. You can see my oh-so-right monomania in some of these bioluminescent photographs below (images painted using a liquid culture of luminous bacteria).

This is how I feel about microbiology in general.  No surprise.

And how I feel about the holiday, of course:

I even have gone so far as to illuminate some holiday appropriate items (including the sublime Edgar Allan Poe) with bacterial bioluminescence.

Even some, ahem, self portraiture.  This is easy enough to do, even with an iPhone camera:

And one can get a bit more involved with use of the camera, as in this "lux portrait" from a few years ago (a student with true photographic skills took this one, not me!):

Or one can even take advantage of pumpkins, Petri dishes, and my beloved luminous microbes.

Heck, my wife "painted" my portrait with bioluminescent bacteria last year, as you can see:

But even without bioluminescence, I love Hallowe'en...and "GiantMicrobes":

And I am not the only microbiology professor who has this fixation on the Hallowe'en season AND microbiology!

Phil Mixter, of Washington State University, has long used a "costumed crusader" approach to teaching aspects of microbiology (check out this remarkable video), and has even coauthored a paper on using this kind of "edutainment" approach in teaching!

My guess is that my own students are relieved not to see me show up in costume in class (right, micronauts?).  By the way, I have also seen Phil appear as "Neutrophil" (apologies for the pun).  Note also my friend and colleague Andrea Rediske (who writes with Kelly Cowan on their fine blog) as "Sally Mona."  Again, apologies for the puns. That's what we scientists do, far too often.

Another colleague, Ruth Gyure of Western Connecticut State University, has had a lot of fun with Hallowe'en Hijinks™ over the years.  But this October, she did a wonderful "spooky" turn as a spectral "White Plague" in her class that day...representing tuberculosis!

I wish I had a movie of her creative performance---imagine that eerie costumed form slowly striding into a darkened room, while students are viewing a video clip about the White Plague!  Truly creepy! Bravo!

And for Hallowe'en, I can't really leave out my friend and colleague, Tara Smith.  Tara is an epidemiologist and microbiologist at Kent State University in Ohio (she also writes a fine and insightful blog at Aetiology).  Tara has had a long running interest in the Hallowe'en appropriate topic of zombies, and has written several wonderful blog entries on this subject here, here, and here.  Brrr! I have never understood why the Hollywood people just don't hire her when they make zombie movies.  "Walking Dead" fans, Tara has some great insights for you.

With all of that,  it's really no surprise that I would really encourage some aspects of the season to appear in my Fall semester Microbiology course at the University of Puget Sound. It can be a triumphant cry of microbial supremacy in the course. 

Sometimes, it can be about artistically using bioluminescent bacteria in a darkened room as a group.

But other times, it can be about having lecture and discussion on Hallowe'en day itself, and celebrating appropriately! 

First, a former student offered to make "microbially themed" cookies based on this post (Petri dish cookies), and this other post (gel electrophoresis cookies).

And, in celebration, I offered my students some extra credit pointage for appearing in class wearing a "microbially-relevant" costume.  Here they are as a group.

Wow!  That made me feel pretty good.  I think that the students are starting to "get" Microbial Pride™!  Let's run through the costumes and what they depict, shall we?  Most students seemed okay with me taking photos, so here we go.

This costume had a double duty to it:  a sheep for some other party (I didn't ask for details), but with some added commensal rumen microbes (though we know more about the bovine symbiosis) for class that day, including Methanosarcina and Butyrivibrio.

Wow!  A microbiological incubator complete with door, and a Petri dish shirt?  Creative!

Here is a nod to Lynn Margulis and the endosymbiotic theory of cellular evolution:  enslaving bacteria (which we now call mitochondria and chloroplasts) to allow modern eukaryotic cells!

Though it may appear that this student was lacking a costume, I quite disagree:  she is covered in layers of mask-wearing microbes that are too small to observe with this camera!

Here is an innovative (and electrically powered) illustration of the symbiosis between Vibrio fischeri and the Hawai'ian Bobtailed Squid, Euprymna scolopes.

No microbiology course is complete without a biofilm here or there.

Here we have a unique depiction of the pink pigmented facultative methylotrophs that are often found on the surfaces of plant leaves.

Again, no microbiology course is quite complete without a depiction of "streaking"---complete with an inoculating loop!

Sometimes students have their interests piqued by things presented in class other than more "classic" curricular topics.  Because of the season, I recently showed the video in this link, depicting "zombie bacteria" that can move after they are dead (because of the lysed mycoplasma's motility machinery powered by exogenous ATP). This student was inspired by that video and link to create his own version of their "skeleton-motility system."

It is true that bacteriophages are everywhere.  Even at my Microbial Hallowe'en party

It's not every day that you get see a very, very large Petri dish, and observe the "blue/white" screening that takes place in many cloning experiments.

On the right, a swab (which we used in class to learn more about the microbes living in our water bottles).  On the left, an artistic interpretation of Deinococcus radiodurans, repairing its DNA. The green outfit?  A nod to the Incredible Hulk, due to gamma radiation (more about that at the end of this post)!

It's nice to see a non-pathogenic strain of Staphyloccus aureus around the classroom.

On the left, a trichome of a cyanobacterium, complete with heterocyst and annotated by various nitrogen-related activities.  On the right, Pseudomonas syringae forming sharp ice crystals via ice nucleation protein.

And here is something quite unique:  a living microscope, complete with a rotating nosepiece of objectives. Who knew that microscopy could be so personal?

I missed two costumes that you can see in the group photograph:  a nice T-shirt emblazoned with the "actin rockets" of Listeria, and a very red smoking jacket and hat that were intended to remind us all of the prodigiosin pigment molecule made by Serratia marcescens.  

Let me add one interesting thing, to finish out this long post celebrating Hallowe'en and microbiology.  

As I have had my students experiment with using Twitter as an educational tool, we came across a person posting on Twitter as "Micro_Hulk."  Here is a close up of the person's page.  

I have no idea who this person actually is, though they have posted things with which I wholeheartedly agree:

And the person has made efforts to encourage my class for exams:

But who is Micro_Hulk?  Truly, I do not know the answer to this mystery.  A close up of Micro_Hulk's avatar doesn't really give any clues, to be honest.

So I had to come up with some insights of my own, since I didn't make or wear a costume this year.  Thus, in honor of MicroHulk, here are my artistic depictions of this tiny powerhouse!  You have to love the Petri dish courtesy of Michele Banks of artologica, and the microbes courtesy of, well, Giant Microbes.

Or perhaps this is a better depiction?  After all, it has the (in)famous Honeybadger involved, along with more shout-outs to microbiology.

We may never get the answer to this mystery. 

In all it was a lovely---and microbially relevant---Hallowe'en!  My thanks to my creative and positive students in this course.  I hope you all enjoyed the "classroom party" as much as I did!

Best wishes to all.  May you get more treats than tricks!