Mud and Microbes: a Time-Lapse Photographic Exploration of a Sediment Bacterial Community

  • Authors: Michael Lemke 1, Keith Miller 2, Roza George 3
    Affiliations: 1: Microbial Ecology, University of Illinois at Springfield, Springfield, IL, 62701; 2: Department of Computer Science, University of Illinois at Springfield, Springfield, IL, 62703-507; 3: Department of Microbiology, University of Georgia
  • Citation: Michael Lemke, Keith Miller, Roza George. 2008. Mud and microbes: a time-lapse photographic exploration of a sediment bacterial community.
  • Publication Date : November 2008
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A world of microorganisms lives in the soil and sediment.  One way of observing their interactions and diversity is to create a window into some of the many soil processes through a culture gradient enrichment.  Light is the primary enrichment factor with a focus on the sulfur-cycle microorganisms.  The technique shown here is an adaptation of the Winogradsky column that further opens the window of observation from a column to a plate.  Using time-lapse photography, processes that take weeks to develop are observed in about one and one-half minutes.  The value of this video is that it should capture the attention and imagination of students and serve as a catalyst to discussion of the microbial ecology and microorganism dynamics in the world around us.

The Winogradsky column was developed by Sergi Winogradsky in the late 19th century to observe and isolate soil microorganisms. Generations of students have studied this miniature ecosystem that serves as a common visual learning tool. The objective of this study was to increase interest in the study of soil microorganisms involved in nutrient (i.e., sulfur) cycling and to use time-lapse photography as a tool to uncover subtle details of microbe growth that would otherwise be missed.  The Winogradsky plate was constructed with two glass plates (21.6 x 27.9 cm) and foam spacers to create a frame to hold sediment from a pond.  The sediment was enriched with 1 to 2% of calcium carbonate and magnesium sulfate. A cellulose source was homogenized with a small portion of the enriched sediment and placed at the bottom of the plate.  The plate was filled with the enriched mud and water from the collection site. The plate was illuminated by a light source throughout the duration (~40 days) of the experiment. A camera was mounted in a single spot and a picture taken about every 24 hours. This approach made it possible to see the development of this model ecosystem in a detailed and progressive manner.  We provide two learning resources:  (i) a slide show with voice over to explain the set up and interpretation of the apparatus and results (long version) and (ii) a ~90-second animation (short version; also embedded in the slide show). The end result makes a valuable learning tool about the chemical process of the sulfur cycle and the biotic components that drive a biogeochemical cycle.    


The movie was made by taking daily digital photographs with an Olympus digital camera followed by conversion of the photos to the "mud movie" using Windows Movie Maker version 5.1.  The teaching slide show module was created in PowerPoint using Microsoft PowerPoint 2003 complete with digital sound file (*.wav)-linked voice over that was subsequently converted into a Flash movie using Articulate Presenter 5 to facilitate easy access via the web. 


1.  Charlton, P. J., J. E. McGrath, and C. G. Harfoot. 1997. The Winogradsky plate, a convenient and efficient method for enrichment of anoxygenic phototrophic bacteria. J. Microbiol. Methods 30:161–163.


2002. Habitat for lab specimens and other uses for common household items. http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/artaug02/gchabitat.html.  


3.  Rogan, B., M. Lemke, M. Levandowsky, and T. Gorrell.2005. Exploring the sulfur nutrient cycle using the Winogradsky column.  Am. Biol. Teacher 67:279–287. 



Barbara Schubert and the University of Chicago Orchestra performed Richard Straus's Also Sprach Zarathurstra,  http://www.archive.org/details/uso20000527. Creative Commons license: attribution, noncommercial, no derivative works.

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