Reindeer Rumen Caper

We received an E-mail message in February from Don Peterson, a teacher in Fairbanks, Alaska. His school has begun offering a biotechnology course dealing with microbiology. He heard of the DLC-ME project through his contacts at NSF, and is obviously interested in seeing if it can be used with his school's course. We told him we'd keep in touch, let him know when we had materials available, and asked if he (and his students) would be interested in Beta-testing our work and giving us some feedback.

A short while later he mailed us some back issues of a newsletter, "the Biotechnician", that his students are producing which chronicles their experiences in the biotechnology course. Upon scanning these newsletter, we were pleased to note that several themes that we are emphasizing in the DLC-ME project are also well-represented in his class's activities. Two of these were the construction of Winogradsky columns and an interest in compost piles (which is an environment in the Microbe Zoo as well as the theme for an interactive simulation we are building, called Compost Happens!).

One of the earliest parts of the Microbe Zoo to be fleshed out is a section on the microbes that live in a cow rumen (stomach) that aid in the digestion of cellulose and produce methane (a powerful greenhouse gas). A whole class of animals, called ruminants, have similar microbial habitats within them. Some ruminants we were familiar with include deer, goats, and giraffes. We learned from "the Biotechnician" that reindeer are also ruminants, and that Don's students were studying microbes in reindeer rumen. We sent Don a message describing the parallels we had noticed between themes in our project and topics being explored by his class.

Shortly thereafter, one of Don's students called us with a problem. She had collected samples of reindeer rumen microbes, and was trying to create permanent microscope slides from her samples. Unfortunately, she was having difficulty coming up with a chemical concoction that worked well as a fixative/preservative. Our post-doc science liaison project member, Cathy McGowan, knows a scientist who studies microbial populations in rumens who is also very interested in science education. She managed to connect the student and the scientist, enabling them to collaborate. The scientist did not have any samples of reindeer rumen microbes, and was as eager as the student for the possibility of sharing expertise and resources.

We were obviously pleased that, even before our project was formally on-line and our publicity efforts had begun, we were able play a part in connecting scientists with students in a genuine scientific research opportunity. Hopefully, this is a foreshadowing of the sort of thing the DLC-ME project may facilitate!

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The DLC-ME is being developed by the Comm Tech Lab and the Center for Microbial Ecology at Michigan State University.