I’m re-posting this project we did two years ago, since I’m making plates today for a hand-washing experiment that the kids and I will do after school. Stay tuned!
Did you know that every surface in your home is teeming with microorganisms? Culturing microbes from your home on petri dishes lets you grow some of them as colonies that you can see with your naked eye. You might already have what you need in your kitchen cupboard. If not, the ingredients are readily available at most grocery stores. I demonstrated this experiment on Kare11 and you can watch it here, following the yeast experiment.
To make petri plates, you’ll need disposable containers (see below), beef bouillon cubes or granules, plain gelatin or agar agar*, water, sugar and Q-tips. (*Agar-agar can be found with Asian groceries in some grocery stores.) **Gelatin will melt if it gets too warm, and some strains of bacteria can liquify it, which is why scientists in labs use agar to make their plates. The idea to use agar for plates originally came from Angelina Hess, who used agar for canning food.
For containers, you can use foil muffin tins, clear plastic cups covered with plastic baggies, clear Tupperware with lids, or real petri dishes. We’re going to use clear deli containers, so that we can recycle while we learn. (Containers must be heat-resistant enough to pour warm agar into.)
Start by making microbial growth medium (or microbe food, as we like to call it.) Mix together:
-1 cup water
-1 Tbs. agar-agar (OR one and one half packages gelatin, which is about one and a half oz or 12g)
-1 bouillon cube (or 1 tsp. granules)
-2 tsp. sugar
The next step requires adult assistance, since it involves very hot liquid. Bring the mixture to a boil on the stove or in the microwave, stirring at one minute intervals and watching carefully until the gelatin or agar is dissolved. Remove the boiling liquid from heat and cover. Let cool for about fifteen minutes.
Pour the medium carefully into clean containers, until 1/3 to 1/2 full. Loosely place lids, foil or plastic baggies over containers and allow dishes to cool completely. The geltin or agar should make the growth media hard like jello. When your plates have hardened, store them in a cool place, like a refrigerator, before using. Plates should be used in 2-3 days. When you are working with the plates, try to keep the lids on loosely whenever possible, so that they are not contaminated by microorganisms floating around in the air. If you’re planning to use muffin tins, simply place them in a muffin pan, fill them with agar, and when they’re cool, put them in individual zip-lock baggies. With other containers, put the lids on tightly once the plates harden.
When the plates are ready, shake the condensation (water droplets) off the lids of the containers and put them back on. If you have a clear container, you can draw a grid of four sections on the bottom of the plate with permanent marker. (If using muffin tins, label each bag with the surface you are checking.) Decide which surfaces you’d like to test.
Label your plates with the names of the surfaces you want to test. Be sure to label the bottom of the plate since the lid will move. You should be able to see through the agar to see your lines and your writing. If you want to, you can label a separate plate for each surface, but we had three kids and three plates, so we made sections. TV remotes, kitchen sinks, computer keyboard, doorknobs and piano keys are great surfaces to check. You can even touch your finger to the plate, cough on a plate, or leave one open to the air for half an hour to see what’s floating around! (See the photo at the top of this post for a better picture of how your plate might look.)
Rub a clean Q-tip around on the surface you want to test. Then, remove the lid from the plate and gently rub the Q-tip across the section of the plate labeled for that surface. If you’re careful, the agar shouldn’t break. If it does, it’s no big deal. When you’re done, set the plates on a flat surface with their lids loosened and taped on (do not invert them.)
See what grows! You will mostly see fungi (molds), but you may also see some tiny clear or white spots that are colonies formed by millions of bacteria. Record and draw how your plates look in your science notebook. Keep track of how long it takes things to grow and the shapes, sizes and colors of the microbial colonies that grow on their plates. Sciencebuddies.org has this great page on interpreting what you find growing on your plates! If you want to learn more about microbes, search for the words fungi and bacteria on the website cybersleuthkids.com and it will give you some great links to microbiology websites. Microbes are everywhere, but that very few of them are harmful, and many of them are essential for good health.
Wash your hands after handling the plates, and throw the plates away when you are done. Remember, if you washyour hands with regular hand soap for the length of time that it takes to say the ABCs, you’ll remove most of the harmful bacteria and viruses on them. (One side effect of this experiment is the sudden urge to disinfect computer keyboards and remote controls.)