By BRUCE JACOBS
Next time you pick up a courtesy telephone, you may want to spray it with disinfectant. The phone is teeming with microorganisms, some of which may not be very friendly.
Each semester, students in the Microbiology 222 and 365 labs discover that germs are literally everywhere, even at relatively clean places like BYU’s campus.
Using a cotton swab resembling a large Q-tip, students collect samples from places like phone receivers, door handles, drinking fountains and elevator buttons to see how many different microorganisms have established residency there.
The students transfer the germ samples to an auger plate filled with bacterial media to help it grow. The samples are then placed in an incubator and allowed to grow for about a week. It is then possible to count and identify the colonies that have grown.
Kristilyn Rogers, 24, a senior from West Jordan majoring in molecular biology, is a teaching assistant for the Microbiology 222 lab. Rogers said the purpose of the lab is to find microbes existing in the natural environment.
“It’s just interesting to see what kind of things grow up and to see how many microorganisms there are where you wouldn’t expect them,” Rogers said. “The place where people find the most bacterial colonies growing are places that a lot of people touch.”
Tami Stewart, 21, a junior from Englewood, Colo., majoring in nursing, took the Microbiology 222 lab. Stewart said she found 25 bacterial colonies in a sample taken from the door handle of a women’s bathroom in the Widtsoe Building.
“It was pretty disgusting,” Stewart said. “It made me wish people would wash their hands more.”
Kristina Lewis, 20, a senior from St. George majoring in microbiology and a teaching assistant for the microbiology 365 lab, said students can find germs at almost any location. Lewis said the most dangerous microorganisms, however, are found on the students themselves.
“Most of the things that are harmful to people are found in (our) mouths,” Lewis said. “One of the (diseases) students isolate a lot of times is strep throat.”
Lewis said E.coli and staphylococcus are two types of bacteria students often identify. These bacteria are common to people and under most circumstances do not cause disease, she said.
“(Staphylococcus) can cause food poisoning, but it’s normally just found on our skin,” Lewis said. “(The lab) makes students aware of how infections are caused and also of the good organisms that are in our world.”
With so many different kinds of bacteria and microorganisms crawling all over the place, it may seem almost like a miracle more people don’t become seriously ill.
But Dr. Lana Riddle, coordinator of BYU’s family nurse practitioner program, said it’s no surprise people are able to stay healthy.
“Microbes are everywhere, but they’re not all disease producing,” Riddle said. “The (human) immune system handles a lot of things in our environment, from allergies to microorganisms.”
Riddle said good personal hygiene and immunization are two ways people can protect themselves from harmful microorganisms.
Dr. Glenn Allman, a BYU professor of microbiology, said three main kinds of microorganisms exist in humans: the normal flora, opportunists and pathogens. The most common type, the normal flora, are beneficial, he said.
Allman said normal flora help prevent disease by curtailing the activity of pathogens, which are harmful to humans.
“(Normal flora) compete against the pathogens for the various nutrients that are available in the (body),” Allman said.
According to Allman, the other kind of human bacteria, called opportunists, are usually a part of the normal flora, but when the going gets rough they sometimes betray us. Staphylococcus pneumoniae, which can cause pneumonia, is one of these opportunist pathogens.
One of the purposes of the microbiology 365 lab is to help students isolate and identify the disease-causing pathogens. After the identification is made, students test the pathogens for resistance to antibiotics. Using a procedure called minimum inhibitory concentration, students are able to figure out what levels of antibiotics will kill off the bacteria.
“Most of the time students isolate bacteria from their own bodies and see what kind of antibiotics (the pathogens) are resistant to, because sometimes if … you’ve taken lots of antibiotics you can build resistance to those antibiotics,” Lewis said.
Allman said although students often make mistakes in their analyses, the lab provides a good hands-on experience for microbiology students.
“(The lab) really exposes students to … the microbial world around them and on them,” Allman said.