Last year we had the opportunity to work alongside Dr Bethan Stallwood and Dr Anne Goodenough on a project looking into the microbial load of pied flycatchers (Ficedula hypoleuca) and their nest boxes from different locations in Hereford and Powys. Having never worked in a microbiology laboratory, neither of us had any idea as to what to expect, with only the few lab skills we had picked up during our A-levels and modules in our first year. But this was a great opportunity to learn new technical skills.
We were quickly with some lab work, the plating up of many swabs taken from various parts of the birds and their nest boxes onto three types of agar plates; nutrient agar, blood agar and antibiotic-selective agar. Those bacteria or fungi which grew on blood agar plates and broke down the blood (haemolysis) were assumed to be pathogenic. Those which were able to grow on antibiotic-selective agar were considered to be resistant to those antibiotics. Throughout the weeks, many plates were counted and analysed, using a BIOLOG machine which we were lucky enough to work with for a few weeks. The BIOLOG semi-automated microbial system is able to identify bacteria in the matter of minutes by the use of a 96-well system. Each well contains a different nutrient mix, which each species of bacteria or fungi metabolise differently turning that well a different shade of purple. Therefore each bacterium or fungus will have a different pattern of shades on the plate.
There were species of both bacteria and fungi which were found to be present on many of the Pied flycatchers, which have never previously been associated with these birds. One species found (Enterococcus haemoperoxidus) was of particular concern as it is a haemolytic bacterium, which may present problems for offspring in ‘infected’ nestboxes.
After all the work in the lab was complete, it was time to carry out some statistical analyses to test the effects of microbial load on the reproductive success of pied flycatchers. Comparisons were made between the microbial load of males vs females, females vs nestbox, brood patch vs male feathers, brood patch vs male skin. Very little is known about the microbial load of birds and their nest boxes, especially with the limited research into the lives of pied flycatchers. The knowledge gained from this project can be applied to a bottom-up approach to ecological work concerning the conservation of Pied flycatchers, helping to reverse the recent decline in their numbers.
We both enjoyed our time during the internship, the research is now being written up for the journal of Microbial Ecology by Dr Anne Goodenough and ourselves as Co-authors. This was a great opportunity to get hands on experience and the journal paper will look great on our CVs!
Shantelle Dandy & Tom Nicholson, B.Sc. Biology final year undergraduates
[Shantelle and Tom’s project is a great example of students getting involved in the research activity of academic staff: an opportunity that’s a key feature of our degree courses, either as part of the NS5201 Internship module (piloted by Biosciences and now run across Natural and Social Sciences), DegreePlus internships, student bursaries and dissertation projects. Big thanks to them for writing this! Ed.]