DIYBIO SwabFest Review

This week was the third meeting of the Manchester DIY Bio group – the breeding ground for citizen biology. In previous meetings we had planned a starter project to explore the microbes of Manchester, and now was the time to metaphorically get our hands dirty.

Firstly though, we got to see how literally dirty our hands were with the results of the last meeting’s experiments, where we’d put our hands in agar jelly, and swabbed various surfaces around MadLab. The petri-dishes, which had been stored at room temperature for four days to allow the microbes to grow, were spread across the table and we all examined the cultures growing within. There was quite a range of stuff growing. Jo assured us that everything was harmless (she also, worryingly, kept referring to the microbes as ‘beautiful’ – I guess that’s scientists for you!). Most of them also looked reassuringly benevolent, apart from Asa’s hand-print, which had some kind of spores growing in it which looked decidedly sinister.

The area of MadLab which appeared to be hosting the largest variety of microbes was the arcade machine, and the area with the fewest was the centre of the table, which appeared to be virtually sterile.

Then it came time for Swabfest itself – the data-collecting part of the Manchester Microbe Map. Naomi informed us that both the council and the GMPTE had given us permission, with some restrictions, to swab property belonging to them. It was decided that the data would be more meaningful if we just stuck to one particular type of surface – in this case bus-stops.

We were divided into teams of two, and assigned areas of Manchester depending on available transport. I was paired with a bright young A-level biologist called David, and we were given the university stretch of Oxford Road. So, after stocking up on swabs, vials of saline solution, pens, and pieces of cardboard with square holes in them (to ensure consistent sample area), we headed off to do science!

On the way, David mentioned that Oxford Road was one of the busiest bus routes in Britain. And we were going for the busiest part of it! Erk! We decided that we’d do bus-stops on both sides of the road, and for consistency I would do the seat each time and David would do the timetable. We arrived outside the Manchester University Students’ Union and the place was heaving. Unfortunately the bus-stop nearest to us was the scene of some kind of medical incident, with an ambulance in attendance and some unfortunate person being stretchered into it. So we crossed over and did our first swab – the bus-stop right outside the Union. Wow! That was easy. This was going to be simple. After a quick reference photo we walked to the next stop.
Unfortunately, we ran into our first problem – the seat was occupied. Never mind, the timetable was accessible, so David swabbed it. I tried to get a photo of the stop without getting the seat-occupant in it, but it was impossible. Also, the guy clearly thought we were up to something dodgy. We had wondered previously whether taking photos of public transport infrastructure, and daubing things with chemicals out of vials, might result in a call to Her Majesty’s finest. We decided to move on to the next stop and get this one on the way back.

Oxford Road

So we did the next stop, which sadly had no timetable or map, so David had to swab an advert instead. Then we crossed over the road and headed back. We did two stops on the other side of the road, having to wait for a bus to come both times, because they were so full of people. And also, I went back to the now-unoccupied one I’d missed on the way up.

Back at MadLab we transferred our swabs onto agar plates, and sealed them up. The plates are being stored at room temperature for four days again, before being cooled to moderate the growth. The results will be revealed at the next DIYBio meet up on the 18th of May.
As people were leaving, I noticed Bob from HACMan giving the arcade machine a going-over with an anti-bacterial wipe!

Agar plates

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Written by Paul Plowman

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