I bet you have never wondered what microorganisms are living on London's iconic buildings. I certainly hadn't given it much thought until this August when I joined Dr Anne Jungblut, Lucy Robinson and volunteers Josie Buerger and Stephen Chandler, for an urban field trip. We visited four of London's iconic buildings to collect microorganisms and find out what on earth is living there. This would be the start of our citizen science project, The Microverse; a scientific exploration of the microbes that occupy our built environment across the UK.
The Microverse team collecting samples from Westminster Abbey. Image credit: Josie Buerger
The Tower of London, The Gherkin, St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey all kindly accepted our request to swab their walls and DNA sequence the biofilms that we found. We carefully selected different types of building material and different sides of the buildings, so we could compare the community of microorganisms from these different aspects of the built environment. We took samples from different aged buildings, from cleaned and un-cleaned walls and even from the roof of St Paul's Cathedral.
Collecting samples from St. Paul's Cathedral.
Samples were collected by dampening a cotton wool swab with sterile water and then rubbing this swab against the surface of the wall. The head of the cotton wool swab was then put into a tube of DNA preservative. Samples were stored in the freezer of the Museum until they could be DNA sequenced in the labs. We are currently analysing the lab results to see what communities of microorganisms were living on the different buildings. Will The Gherkin have less microorganisms than the Tower of London? Will south facing walls have more microorganisms than north facing walls? We hope to tell you what we have found very soon.
Dr Anne Jungblut adding sample to DNA preservative at Tower of London. Image credit: Josie Buerger.
The Microverse is a citizen science project, suitable for A-level Biology students or equivalent, and community groups. The project takes you out of the classroom to gather microorganisms for DNA analysis, as part of our cutting edge research into the biodiversity and ecology of the microbial world. It's free to participate and you can find out more about the project and how to take part here.