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Why microbiology experiments are hard to do for science fairs

Posted by on January 23, 2012

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Since I am a microbiologist, I frequently get asked to design microbiology experiments for science fair projects. I have stopped doing it because of rule changes for most science fairs. ISEF now prohibits growing bacteria or mold in the home environment. I recently looked into the rules for the Google Science Fair – here is my interpretation, followed by their exact rules:

If you are entering the Google Science Fair you may only use a specific list of microorganisms and only for specific projects.

According to their rules (see below), you MAY USE:

Yeast: Brewer’s and Baker’s – essentially what you can buy in a supermarket, but not allowed for recombinant DNA experiments (if you don’t know what recombinant DNA studies are, you are not doing them – they require genetic engineering tools).
Slime molds: These are awesome (use Google to find pictures), but slow growers – you will need to plan way ahead to monitor slime molds in your local woods. However, at least you can see them (see problems with bacteria below).

And the following bacteria:

Lactobacillus: essentially, the type of bacteria found in yogurt and some other fermented foods
Bacillus thurgensis: can’t believe this one is on their list, but – a species of bacteria naturally found in soil and now used as a natural pesticide
Nitrogen-fixing bacteria: some used to be called blue-green algae, but later revealed they were not algae. They can be found in some aquatic environments, while many other types live in the soil (either on their own or in association with plant roots).
Oil-eating bacteria: if you live near natural oil seeps, or a location suffering from an oil spill, you have a chance of finding these
Algae-eating bacteria – if you live near a river, lake, beach, marina, or rocky intertidal you have a chance of finding these. FYI: few microbiologists have even seen these (I am one of them because I took Microbiology from the late John Buck at the University of Connecticut).

BUT – you may ONLY study these in their natural environments… so — No Petri dishes! No flasks! No culturing them indoors! You can’t do anything that encourages their growth! …

Given these restrictions, it is not clear how you could possibly do an experiment with them. For example, how do you conduct an observational study of something that you can’t see without manipulating? – After all, most of these require at least a microscope to verify you have what you think you have.

Google does make one exception for mold on food, but you have to destroy the molding food as soon as you see the evidence of the mold. That means the only questions you can ask will have time as the dependent variable. For example: “How does the ________ affect the time for mold to be first observed?”

SOURCE — From their website:
“Biological/Chemical Substances

There are legal limits placed on the types of substances you are allowed to work with at your age. These rules are very important and you should be certain that you understand them well. For the purposes of the Google Science Fair, a biological agent is considered to be any substance (including gases) that are, or are the product of, a biological organism. Use of non-approved biological organisms, or use of approved organisms in unapproved techniques, will result in the immediate disqualification of your project.

Projects involving biological agent subjects, biological agent data or biological testing are limited to the following:

Use of data from pre-existing, publicly available resources;

See the equivalent area in the Human Subject section above clarification of pre-existing, publicly available resources.

Use of only agents in exempt categories is permitted. These categories include;
• baker’s yeast and brewer’s yeast, except when involved with rDNA studies;
• Yeast, or other organisms, may not be used to express recombinant DNA for any purpose, including the production of protein. Yeast (baker’s yeast and brewer’s yeast ONLY) may be used for experimentation as long as it is not used as an expression system for recombinant genetic materials. Use of any other strain of yeast is not allowed. Use of approved yeast strains for unapproved purposes is not allowed.
• Lactobacillus, Bacillus thurgensis, nitrogen-fixing, oil-eating bacteria, slime mold and algae-eating bacteria introduced into their natural environment (not exempt if cultured in a petri dish environment that could potentially be contaminated);

ONLY the specific bacteria and molds listed here are permitted. Other bacteria, molds, and fungi are not allowed. All such cultures must be maintained in their natural environment. Growth of these organisms in a petri dish is not permitted due to risk of contamination of the cultures with unintended and dangerous bacteria and mold.

studies of mold growth on food items if the experiment is terminated at the first evidence of mold;

Mold may be cultivated or encouraged to grow on food products, but the specimens must be properly disposed of when mold is first detected on the food. Studies involving the sustained growth of mold are not permitted. Special precautions should be taken to avoid the conduct of such studies in regions where toxic molds are known to grow.”

3 Responses to Why microbiology experiments are hard to do for science fairs

  1. Kumar saurabh raj

    Hello!.. i want to know that if blue-green algae is allowed then all species of blue green algae will be allowed?… is genetic engineering also allowed?.. please reply to me via. an email.

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      Blue green algae were miss-named! They are actually bacteria and now we call them cyanobacteria. There are both toxic and non-toxic strains and you will need to check with your school and state rules. Depending on your age and access to a lab, you may or may not get a project approved. Genetic engineering is also generally NOT approved (and potentially dangerous if you don’t understand what you are doing), but there are rare and limited some exceptions at the older/more advanced levels. What did you have in mind?

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