What kind of microorganism digests grass most efficiently? And just what the heck is growing on my cell phone?

Hey all, Ryan Knodle back again talking about my opportunity to help out a couple of middle schoolers with their microbiology-based science fair projects through service-based learning. Over the last month or so, I had the pleasure of working with Jack and Katherine, two astute local middle schoolers. Jack knew exactly what he wanted to test from the start: What microorganisms digest grass the fastest? Upon initially hearing the idea, I couldn’t help but laugh because it sounded, well, funny.

As a precursor to taking the local students under our collective wing, the microbiology lab that afforded my classmates and I this opportunity had us research some ideas for possible science fair projects relating to microbiology. Often times, the kids will come in with ideas for projects that are either far more complicated than can be completed in the time frame or that need a little beefing up. Typically, the latter happens, and having researched some projects, we can offer the students some more ideas in order to bring their project up to the level that they need to present at. In my search for science fair ideas,  I came across a lot of “What’s in my dog’s mouth?” and “What’s growing on the kitchen counter?”, but never anything related to the digestion of grass.

As it turns out, however, Jack’s curiousity was piqued after spending the last few summers mowing lawns and discarding of grass through various methods. He noticed that grass will eventually break down, but that it takes quite a bit of time. After hearing his motivation and being impressed by the organisms he wanted to test, all laughter subsided; my curiousity had been piqued as well. And with that, we embarked on our journey of scientific discovery-Jack, myself, and my two partners in crime Maddie and Bianca both of which were essential to this project.

Jack knew that he wanted to test the grass from his own yard and he did his own research on some of the organisms he would give the task of digesting grass. He knew from the start that he wanted to try both Gram positive and Gram negative bacteria, yeast, the rumen fluid of a cow’s stomach, and a type of fungus. Fortunately, the only one of those we couldn’t provide for Jack was the fungus; our use of organisms was limited to the BSL 2 live specimens we used in the lab. We were able to provide Bacillus subtilis, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Esherichia coli, Saccharomyces cerivisae (a yeast), Proteus vulgaris, and the rumen fluid from a cow’s stomach.

Maddie, Bianca, and I also worked with another student, Katherine, who wanted to know what was growing on the typical cell phone. Having constant contact with people’s hands and faces, cell phones are prime breeding grounds for microorganisms. We had to provide Katherine with a few more details and tests to beef up her project, but she was delighted to take suggestions. Her project was based around figuring out whether or not there was a difference between the amount of bacteria found on the keypad of a cell phone as opposed to the touchscreen of a phone. We added in a few more ideas to determine what kinds of bacteria (Gram negative or positive) grew on each.

This is only the introduction to these two in depth experiments. Tune in next week and I’ll talk about the logistics and the procedures and will show that these two students committed an enormous deal of time and effort into making these projects work.

For now, goodnight and good luck.

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