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The Columns

The Winogradsky Column: an enclosed self sustaining microbial system.

Or, in other words, a microbial garden.  The columns are named for a famous Russian microbiologist, Sergei Winogradsky (his wikipedia page can be found here).  Winogradsky made a number of important discoveries and is considered the father of sulfur microbiology.  From studying sulfur and nitrogen dependent microbes, Winogradsky was able to deduce that they obtained energy from chemical reactions and used that energy to grow on carbon dioxide, a process called chemoautotrophy.  Prior to his proposal, only plants and colored bacteria were thought to grow by fixing carbon dioxide using light energy; i.e. photoautotrophy. We humans are heterotrophs, we have to eat fixed carbon (i.e. plants, animals, candy bars) to get the energy and carbon we use to grow.

The columns were invented by Winogradsky as a way to enrich for microbes from sediments and soils.  Enrichment means to grow specific types of organisms to very large population sizes, much larger than they are normally found in nature.  Enrichment culturing is the way that new microbes are brought into the laboratory so that they can be studied and understood.  The key point here is that the organisms enriched were always present in the environment.  Much like a gardener providing the best possible conditions for a type of plant to grow, making a column provides an environment for these microbes to grow, or bloom, as a lush population.  Not only does the column provide one environment, it provides a whole range of environments in one small setting, a microcosm (literally small world).  This means that many types of organisms with different needs can grow in different parts of the column.

So, if you want to get started growing your own microbial garden, head on to the “Build a column” page.  To understand more about what happens in the columns, see the “How it works” page.  To see fully developed columns, see the “Column gallery”.

If you want to read more about Winogradsky’s life and impact on microbiology, here are some suggestions:

Lloyd Ackert Jr. (2006) The Role of Microbes in Agriculture: Sergei Vinogradskii’s Discovery and Investigation of Chemosynthesis, 1880–1910. Journal of the History of Biology.

Lloyd Ackert Jr. (2007) The “Cycle of Life” in Ecology: Sergei Vinogradskii’s Soil Microbiology, 1885–1940. Journal of the History of Biology.

Selman A. Waksman (1953) Sergei N. Winogradsky: his life and work: the story of a great bacteriologist. Rutgers University Press.  This book is out of print, but may be available at larger university libraries or through antique book sellers.  Waksman was another great microbiologist who plied his trade just up the road at Rutgers where he pioneered the development of antibiotics from soil microbes.  For this, Waksman won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1952.