Microbiology for writers and the curious: a primer

A microbiologist, along with environmental and earth scientists, often creep into my stories unintentionally. Usually, when I want to double-check what the microbiologist would do, I call Mrs R, a microbiologist here in Durban. I was most fortunate when Mrs R allowed me to tag along to the Microbiology Department and gave me an instructive tour of the lab.

First things first, what do microbiologists do?

My understanding is that microbiologists study minuscule microbes with the aim of achieving various ways to make life better – from brewing better beer, producing better cures for illnesses, improving industrial processes, or preventing bored depressed timber from spontaneously combusting.
And while a microbiologist could inadvertently eradicate all life on earth as we know it, there’s very little chance of this if they follow the Six Rules For A Microbiology Lab User.

More components for DNA testingFrom what I could see, the most boring thing a microbiologist gets to do is DNA testing.

The most exciting thing they get to do is play with super-cool machines like: centrifuges, the Vortex, incubators, and something called a Thermal Cycler, many of which separate DNA indicators from the rest of the cells so things like genetic modification can become a reality. Also, they get to make better puns than I do (the microbiologists, not their equipment). But what microbiologist do the most is run experiments, analyze results and come up with solutions, all of which makes my eyes and brain hurt when I think about it.

A centrifuge
A Pipette Stand for measuring different volumes

Placing a sample into the centrifuge
Placing sample into a centrifuge

Retrieving sample from the centrifuge
Retrieving sample from the centrifuge

An incubator










Thermal Cycler
Thermal Cycler

I found microbiologists to be a friendly, welcoming lot, with diverse interests and personalities. They seem more social than most other scientists, and answered idiotic questions from myself with patience and good humor. Then again, I didn’t mess with any of their cultures…

dont mess with my culture

A Vortex is a vital piece of equipment for any microbiologist, unless they are The Flash.

Baby centrifuge for DNA sampling
Baby Vortex for mixingflash-1.2-cetrifugre

Three little known facts about microbiologists.

3 little known facts microbiologists

topping up on solution
topping up on solution

This extracted protein in a gel looks pretty enough that you want to stick an ungloved finger in it. Not recommended.


 Mock DNA sequence

A DNA sequence looks a lot like someone was amusing themselves with Excel instead of a super-cool clickable 3-D view of a DNA helix we see in the movies. A quick study of Mrs R’s work revealed that I should never challenge a microbiologist at Tetris, and neither should you.

A contaminated culture or a great piece of abstract art

Contaminated petri dishes make for excellent abstract art.


Six Rules for the Microbiology Lab

6 Rules Microbiology Lab b

For more about the fascinating, and often controversial, world of microbiology contact your nearest university microbiology department or lab.

Leenna Naidoo would like to thank Mrs R and her colleagues for their kindness and indulgence, and for their efforts to encourage greater accuracy in a writer’s research. Any errors fall squarely at my feet.


Share your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s