Saturday, 30 April 2011

How to solve a problem like Mycologia

Behold the bacteria of the genus Prochlorococchus, the most abundant organism on this planet and largely responsible for the production of the majority of organic matter in the ocean. Without it the foodchain would collapse and we’d likely have a (bigger) mass extinction on our hands.

So when did we discover Prochlorococchus? Was it those hoity-toity Victorians? Or the stern-faced biologists of the Fifties? No, incredibly it was as recently as 1988. Have you ever heard of it? No. (Me neither).

That’s because many of us (including me) only want to hear and learn about the bigger life forms on Earth. Case in point: did you know that this week scientists mapped out the biodiversity of British soil for the first time? Or that other scientists are finding out the biodiversity of human bellybuttons? Nope.

Don’t worry, I’m the same. If someone tells me they’re a microbiologist my brain races to find something to say or an interesting question to ask. Yet, if they were a herpetologist or a shark wrangler I’d be positively salivating. It should be that, as people with a shared interest in life on Earth, microbiologists and I should have loads to talk about. It troubles me, being sizist in this way.

There’s a serious point to this you see. We’re seeing a drought in young people wanting to study the small stuff, and lack of public interest is a factor behind this. In 2008 we saw reports that were only eight fungi experts left in the whole of the UK. And sadly I have a feeling that one of them died last year.

This is serious. If we don’t have the experts here in the UK then other countries stand to make the most out of scientific discoveries (remember penicillin?). And there’s a conservation viewpoint to this too. If our experts understand the infrastructure of things like soil or leaf-litter then the potential to wield this knowledge to create stronger ecosystems has fascinating and encouraging ramifications.

The sad truth is, though we produce excellent big animal conservationists, we’re a long way off understanding and protecting the smaller stuff. I’d like to see British scientists at the forefront of this micro-frontier.

What can we do to create more micro-zoologists then? Three words. Invest in microscopes. Every classroom should have a handful.

Invest in microscopes

I'm actually not that sizist. Although I have trouble exciting myself about bacteria and fungi I love the minutae of pond life. In fact my earliest memories of looking through microscopes were pond-based.

One of the first things I remember looking at was phantom midge larvae. To the normal eye they look like nothing more than translucent, and very nippy, maggots. Get them under the microscope though and you can see everything that makes this animal tick. Look carefully and you’ll see a balloon puppet brain, and a balloon puppet digestive system (including a little balloon puppet gizzard) all contained within a larger balloon puppet body. Very weird. And it’s angry. Oh so angry.

As my 1880 edition (get me, eh) of Natural History Rambles: Ponds and Ditches puts it:

“Their quietude is like that of an eagle, for like that bird, they are watchful and ready to pounce in a moment on any object moving beneath them. Our phantoms are, I fear, not so innocent as phantoms should be… a glance at the cruel armature of the mouth will satisfy you of this fact.”

It's incredible how microscopes can bring alive something most people (including me) would barely register while walking by a pond, or any wildlife habitat. Microscopes got me, and a generation of pond-enthusiasts, really interested in smaller life. And that was then, when microscopes (and slides) were unwieldy, inaccessible and relatively expensive.

No more is that the case. I mention above the three words “invest in microscopes”. Now how about three letters: USB.

Praise be to USB

Thankfully microscopes are now more accessible and cheaper than ever and can easily plug into any laptop. Personally I’m pleased to see how many primary schools have these now (microscopes used to be restricted to secondary schools).

The ones I use are Dinolight microscopes (which range from £100 - £300), and they are the only ones I know of that have microscopes with a polariser (which means you can see clearly into water, without the light of the microscope reflecting off the water surface back into the lens). The microscope stands seem really pricy though (£50!), so since mine broke I’ve just been holding the microscope with my hands, which is actually fine.

If you (or your school) haven’t got this sort of money handy then there is a cheaper alternative which I got to try out recently. It’s called a Veho microscope and it comes with a stand, and at £36.00 it’s very reasonably priced. Although it doesn’t have a polariser I must say it was almost identical in quality to many of the more expensive USB microscope models on the market. I’m going to get a handful ready for the summer term…

Oh of course, once you’ve got your microscope it takes a while to get into the mindset of using it. You have to always be looking out for opportunities to see things up close. Hangnails, tick larvae off the cat, split ends, dirty jeans, ladybird jaws, harvestman heads and the hairy bottoms of backswimmers. All of these (and more) have been under the glare of my microscope in recent weeks. It’s just a case of always remembering it’s there.

With microscopes more freely available in schools we might well see more up-and-coming conservationists with their eyes on the smaller things. I hope so.

Who knows, maybe in ten years we’ll have an enough fungi experts to fill a football team. Hopefully many more. Maybe we’ll be celebrating a BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner with a penchant for the cellular. It’d be great if so.

“Nature composes some of her loveliest poems for the microscope and the telescope.” said someone. Hopefully having more accessible microscopes will help more people to hear them.

Funding round-up

There's lots going on this week if you’re looking for ways to fund school wildlife projects…

Deutsche Bank Small Grants FundUp to £5000 available for voluntary and community organisations undertaking projects for education and community development in areas of London.

John Jarrold TrustGrant for community and voluntary organisations undertaking a variety of charitable activities in Norfolk, including those relating to the environment and education.

Grassroots Grants Grassroots Grants is a three-year programme that is funded by the Office for Civil Society and administered locally in the London Boroughs of Barking and Dagenham, Haringey, Havering and Redbridge by the East London Community Foundation. The grant helps voluntary organisations, including schools.

Community Greenspace Challenge
The GrantScape Community Greenspace Challenge is a c. £500,000 grant programme designed to support local communities in creating enjoyable new outdoor greenspaces, including by transforming existing unloved areas. This grant scheme specifically designed to benefit the environment both for people and for wildlife, supporting people’s health, well-being and access to nature. Grants are available for amounts between £20,000 and £75,000

Right, that’s it for me this week. Here comes the busy summer term. Brace yourself wildlife, we’re coming for you…

All the best, Jules

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