Winogradsky Column : Make a Bacterial Art Installation

Create a window into the world of bacteria

A Winogradsky column is a beautiful way to observe and learn more about bacteria all around us

Table of Contents

The World in Miniature

Microbes are an important but often ignored part of life around us. The word microbes or micro-organisms encompasses all bacteria, viruses, and fungi. One microbe alone is invisible to the naked eye, but one way we can observe them is through colonies. Colonies are a group of the same species of microbe growing together.

A Winogradsky column is one way to observe, document, and understand colonies and how microbes interact with each other. Like any other living organism, microbes respire, turning food into energy. The food they need includes carbon, sulfur, nitrogen, and even sunlight. In a Winogradsky column, you will be able to see colonies form at different points in time as well as in space.

These colonies can be surprisingly beautiful too! Microbial colonies are colorful and come in a huge range of interesting colors and textures. Pair one next to the other, and you can make yourself a painting.

Colonne_winogradsky_1
A traditional Winogradsky column, Credit: UPVD-BioEcoL3-2010

Sergei Winogradsky was born in 1856 and died in 1953. Throughout his life, he was an excellent scientist and was known for his contributions to microbiology, chemistry, and ecology. He was also a soil scientist, which drove him to build the first Winogradsky column. He spent his life in Ukraine when it was part of the Russian Empire. His simple but elegant experiment allowed us to understand microbes, and this article has a guide to building a modified Winogradsky column.

Sergei Winogradsky
Sergei Winogradsky, Credit: Mccloughlin

What You’ll Need

– Plastic Bottle – 500ml

– Scissors

– A Rubber band

– Cellophane sheets/Cling Wrap

– Bucket

– Shovel

– Sediment/Soil of choosing

– Labels

– Marker

– Mixing Spoon

The Winogradsky Column Procedure

Building your Column:

1. Assembling your column: Using a pair of scissors, cut the top off the plastic bottle so that it looks like a cup. Invert the cut piece into the cut bottle to form a funnel.

2. Collecting soil: With a large bucket and spade, collect 2-3 kilograms (4-5 pounds) of soil from an area of your choice. It can be a garden, a riverbed, or any area that is convenient.

3. Filling your column: Use your spade to fill the cut bottle through the “funnel”, ensuring to leave one to two inches near the top free.

4. Remove the funnel, discard/recycle, and cover the mouth of the cut bottle with cellophane wrap.

5. Place a rubber band around the wrap to hold it in place. Puncture two small holes, opposite each other and close to the rim of the bottle using the scissors.

6. Wait! It can take up to three weeks for microbial colonies to form. If you live in a cold place, it can take even longer. Be patient. Colonies will show up as white, yellow, or differently colored patches. They may be fuzzy, smooth, or jagged. Make sure your column gets two to three hours of sunlight every day.

Now that you have your column, you can experiment with it! Scientific experiments always need to have a control. In a control, nothing is altered. This way, you can compare it to a situation when you change something and see the effect! A Winogradsky column made as above would be your control. To experiment on it, you can:

1) add an egg, which is a source of sulfur.

2) add a sheet of shredded newspaper, which is a source of carbon.

3) expose the column to different levels of sunlight by changing how long you leave it in the sun.

Remember that whatever you do, you always need to have a control to compare your experiment to! Notice what microbes might change, whether any new colonies appear near your newspaper or egg, and see which level of sunlight has the most colonies and which appear first.

The Winogradsky Column Layers: Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Bacteria

One of the most important features that will begin to appear in your Winogradsky column is layers. Heavier stones, rocks, and soil will sediment at the bottom of your column, and lighter materials will float to the top. Stones and rocks are rich in different chemicals, so new microbes may appear near them.

Winogradsky column device method for soil science research outline diagram
Winogradsky column device method for soil science research outline diagram

Most importantly, there will be a clear distinction between the kinds of microbes that will form colonies at the top of your column and at the bottom. Since you poked two holes in the cellophane wrap, the top of the soil will get air and oxygen. Microbes that require oxygen to survive, known as aerobic bacteria, will grow near the top. Microbes that do not require oxygen to survive, known as anaerobic bacteria, will grow near the bottom.

A Winogradksky column is an easy, fun, and exciting way to dive into the world of microbes. Remember to keep a record in a notebook of the colonies which form, when they do, as well as where they show up in the column. You can even sketch out your microbial colonies. Talk about microbiology art! Once you get the hang of building your control, you can experiment, and see what conditions favor which microbes.

Glossary

Aerobic: A microbe that requires oxygen to survive

Anaerobic: A microbe that can survive without oxygen

Colonies: A group of microbes of the same species that is visible to the naked eye

Control: An element that remains unchanged and is used as a comparison in experiments

Microbes: Living organisms that are invisible without a microscope, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi

Respiration: A chemical process that turns food into energy

Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 9.2

Flesch KinkaidReading Ease: 60.4

Sources

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Author

  • Yamini Srikanth

    Yamini's (he/they) interests lie in environmental education, science communication and trying to build a better world. When not languishing in front of his laptop, they can be found outside, poking at any insect, bird or plant. They love making science accessible, especially to those who aren't encouraged to pursue it. Yamini hopes that the young women who read Smore love learning from their articles and get just a little bit more excited about science!