Even though I initially trained as a virologist, it’s a little known factoid that I did my PhD in an old-fashioned Microbiology department – back in the days when “microbiology” really meant “bacteria”. We virologists populated a small unfashionable pocket in an otherwise seriously old-school establishment. From the array of teams working on microbes as diverse as Agrobacterium and Salmonella to the annual Christmas pudding steamed in a 50-liter container in the main autoclave, it was an all-singing, all-dancing floor of no-nonsense bug work.
To earn my upkeep for the first year, I had to teach large labs of medical students the rudiments of sterile three-zone streaking, Gram stains, blood agar and the IMViC coliform test. (For some inexplicable reason that none of the professors could explain, the E. coli residing in my gut were reproducibly indole-negative, so I couldn’t use my own commensals as a classroom control. Considering how these are traditionally isolated, I considered it a bit of a blessing.) Although my heart belonged to the Retroviridae, I took great pleasure in the rituals and manipulations of classical microbiology and passing these on to my students. Even today, I still use the three-zone streak method and a flamed platinum loop to isolate colonies for cloning, even though most of my colleagues just scribble bugs with a dirty yellow tip and do just fine that way. It may not matter for molecular biology, but it’s more about taking pride in the proper way of doing things.
So, two decades on, it’s good to be back in a Microbiology lab with a capital M. Although I’ll be working on the cell biological aspects of urinary tract infections, there is a significant component of pathogen investigation that we need to do in parallel. Things have definitely moved on since the IMViC test: we now have fancy test strips to assay for indole production and the other metabolic readouts used to distinguish similar bugs from one another – and the most amazing chromogenic agar, onto which you can streak an unknown mix of bugs and separate out strains in a rainbow of different possible colored colonies.
But amongst the high-tech kits, relics of our deep microbiological past lurk high on dusty shelves. I’m sure they’ve never been thrown away simply because they’re too beautiful. And I’m certainly not going to break that tradition. So we’ll keep working in the shadow of a more genteel past, harking back to an era when things were made of glass and tooled to precision specifications by craftspeople who took pride in the aesthetics of their products.
But I’ll close on a mystery: what the heck is this?
It looks like a weird pint glass, but its curvature suggests that the opening is meant to be facing downward. It rather harkens back to the days of Joseph Priestley, who put glass jars over mice to see if they required something in the ether to survive. But I suppose it might also just be an over-engineered Bunsen burner snuffer.
All ideas welcome!