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Agar & Petri Dishes
Projects with bacteria are fun and easy! Use this simple procedure as a basis for designing your own experiments
or science fair projects. Ideas for
other projects are listed at the end.
Watch our video for an overview:
Bacteria are one-celled, or unicellular, microorganisms. They are different from plant and animal cells because they don't have a distinct, membrane-enclosed nucleus containing genetic material. Instead, their DNA floats in a tangle inside the cell. Individual bacteria can only be seen with a microscope, but they reproduce so rapidly that they often form colonies that we can see. Bacteria reproduce when one cell splits into two cells through a process called binary fission. Fission occurs rapidly in as little as 20 minutes. Under perfect conditions a single bacterium could grow into over one billion bacteria in only 10 hours! (It's a good thing natural conditions are rarely perfect, or the earth would be buried in bacteria!)
Growing and testing bacteria is a fun any-time project or a great science fair project. Bacteria are everywhere, and since they reproduce rapidly they are easy to study with just a few simple materials. All you need are some petri dishes, agar, and sterile swabs or an inoculating needle. Agar is a gelatinous medium that provides nutrients and a stable, controlled environment for bacteria growth. Most bacteria will grow well using nutrient agar, but some more fastidious bacteria (those with more complex nutrient requirements like Bacillus stearothermophilus, Branhamella catarrhalis, and Bacillus coagulans) prefer tryptic soy agar.
You also need a source for bacteria, and this is not hard to find! You can swab your mouth or skin, pets, soil, or household surfaces like the kitchen sink or toilet bowl. If you want to study a particular type of bacteria, you can also purchase live cultures. Adult supervision is recommended when working with bacteria.
While most environmental bacteria are not harmful to healthy individuals, once concentrated in colonies, they can be hazardous. To minimize risk, wear disposable gloves while handling bacteria, and thoroughly wash your hands before and after. Never eat or drink during bacteria studies, nor inhale or ingest growing cultures. Work in a draft-free room and reduce airflow as much as possible. Keep petri dishes with cultured mediums closed—preferably taped shut—unless sampling or disinfecting. Even then, remove the petri dish only enough to insert your implement or cover medium with bleach or 70% isopropyl alcohol. When finished experimenting, seal dishes in a plastic bag and dispose. Cover accidental breaks or spills with bleach or alcohol for 10 minutes, then carefully sweep up, seal in a plastic bag, and discard.
Preparing Culture Dishes
Before you can grow bacteria, you'll need to prepare sterile culture dishes. A 125ml bottle of nutrient agar contains enough to fill about 10 petri dishes.
Preparing Sensitivity Squares
One method for testing the antibacterial effectiveness of a substance is to use "sensitivity squares." Cut small squares of blotter paper (or other absorbent paper) and then soak them in whatever substance you want to test: iodine, ethyl alcohol, antibacterial soap, antiseptics, garlic, etc. Use clean tweezers to handle the squares so you don't contaminate them. Label them with permanent ink, soak them in the chosen substance, and blot the excess liquid with a paper towel.
Setting Up an Experiment
Each experiment should have a control dish that shows bacteria growth under normal conditions and one or more test dishes in which you change certain variables and examine the results. Examples of variables to test are temperature or the presence of antiseptics. How do these affect bacteria growth?
Wait 3-7 days and examine the bacteria growth in the dishes, without removing the lids. You will see multiple round dots of growth; these are bacteria colonies. Depending on where you collected your bacteria samples, you may have several types of bacteria (and even some mold!) growing in your dishes. Different types of colonies will have different colors and textures. If you have a compound or stereo microscope, try looking at the colonies up close to see more of the differences.
Compare the amount of bacteria in the control dish to the amount in the test dishes. Next, compare the amount of bacteria growth around each paper square. Which one has bacteria growing closest to it? Which one has the least amount of bacteria growing near it? If you did more than one test dish, are the results similar in all the test dishes? If not, what variables do you think might have caused the results to be different? How does this affect your conclusions?
More Bacteria Experiment Ideas
Here are some other project ideas for you to try on your own or use as a basis for a bacteria science fair project:
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