Bacteria that changed the world: Rhizobium leguminosarum

In our Bacterial World exhibition we offer a selection of ten bacteria that have changed the world, some in profound ways. In this series of short fact-file posts we present one of the ten each week. This week’s bacteria are…

Rhizobium leguminosarum
– the Crop-Boosters

Where they live
Rhizobia leguminosarum have a special relationship with plants, living inside little nodules on their roots and receiving shelter and food from them.

Why they are important
In return for its comfortable life, the bacteria bring about hugely increased crop yields. They enable the plant to use nitrogen from the air as a fertiliser, a process called nitrogen fixing.

How they are named
The family of bacteria called Rhizobia got its name in 1889 – it means ‘root living’. Leguminosarum indicates that the species lives in leguminous plants such as peas, beans and lentils.

How they work
The two-way relationship between plants and rhizobia is called mutual symbiosis. Scientists boost crop yields even further by selecting the best strains of bacteria to pair up with plants in specific environments.

Top image: Electron micrograph of root nodules with Rhizobium leguminosarum bacteria grown by The Rhizosphere Group (University of Oxford)
Copyright: Kim Findlay (John Innes Centre)

Bacteria that changed the world: Alcanivorax

In our Bacterial World exhibition we offer a selection of ten bacteria that have changed the world, some in profound ways. In this series of short fact-file posts we present one of the ten each week. This week’s bacteria are…

Alcanivorax borkumensis
– the oil-eaters

Where they live
Seas around the world are host to small numbers of Alcanivorax borkumensis. But if there is an oil spill, its numbers skyrocket, as the species feeds on crude oil.

Why they are important
After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, when the equivalent of 4.2 million barrels of oil gushed into the sea off Houston, Texas, Alcanivorax borkumensis unexpectedly helped reduce the environmental impact of the disaster.

How they are named
Alcanivorax borkumensis voraciously eats oil molecules called alkanes, giving the first part of the name. The second part recalls where scientists first spotted the species, around Borkum Island in the North Sea.

How they work
The species breaks down crude oil using a range of enzymes it produces naturally. It can consume a wider range of alkane molecules than other bacterial species, and so it becomes the dominant species in a contaminated area.

Top image: : Dr. Joanna Lecka, Tayssir Kadri, Prof. Satinder Kaur Brar (INRS)

Bacteria that changed the world: Prochlorococcus

In our Bacterial World exhibition we offer a selection of ten bacteria that have changed the world, some in profound ways. In this series of short fact-file posts we present one of the ten each week. This week’s bacteria are…

– the Oxygen-Makers

Where they live
Prochlorococcus bacteria grow anywhere damp, in salt water or fresh. They are similar to the blue cyanobacteria which thrived in the far-distant past on Earth.

Why they are important
2.3-2.4 billion years ago, cyanobacteria in the oceans began producing oxygen for the first time, changing the Earth’s environment completely.

How they are named
The Greek word for blue is cyan, giving the blue cyanobacteria their name. Until recently, they were known as blue-green algae, but cyanobacteria are actually an earlier and simpler form of life than algae.

How they work
Like all cyanobacteria, Prochlorococcus bacteria harvest energy from the Sun, absorb carbon dioxide and give out oxygen – the process called photosynthesis.

Top image: Transmission Electron Micrograph (TEM) image of Prochlorococcus coloured green
Copyright: Luke Thompson, Chisholm Lab; Nikki Watson, Whitehead (MIT), 2007

The winning brainwave

If you could create an experiment to learn more about the human brain, what would you investigate? We posed this question in our Big Brain Competition last year, as part of the Brain Diaries exhibition with Oxford Neuroscience, and received a whopping 800 entries!

For the competition, Oxford University neuroscientists offered people the chance to use the state-of-the-art MRI scanner at Wellcome Centre For Integrative Neuroimaging at the John Radcliffe Hospital to investigate a burning question about the brain. We had ideas from the young and old, and by visitors from all around the world suggesting brilliant questions and some fascinating experiments.

Functional MRI image of the human brain using the MRI Scanner

To judge all the ideas, entries were split into categories: feasible experiments, unfeasible experiments, under 18s, and questions about the brain. WIN researchers compiled a long-list for each, which was ranked by a panel of neuroscientists and people from the museum to reach the eventual winners.

Sadly, only one experiment could be carried out, so an overall winner was picked from the ‘feasible experiments’ category. The winning experiment was suggested by Richard Harrow, who wanted to understand how the brain identifies voices.

A person is put in the MRI scanner with headphones on.  They are shown a photo of a person familiar to them, either a friend, family member or celebrity.  Then, in their headphones they are played the voice of a person, but the voice is either sped up or slowed down.
They are required to say whether the face on the photo matches the voice they have heard. What happens in the brain when this confusion of audio and visual information is occurring? Will the brain find a way to identify the vocal signature of the voice, even if distorted, and be able to say with conviction if the photo and the voice are a match?
– Richard Harrow, winning competition idea

IMG_4498 (2)
Competition winner Richard Harrow was interviewed alongside neuroscientist Dr Stuart Clare during the live streaming of the experiment

On the day of the experiment, the winners and runners-up headed over to the WIN Centre to watch Richard’s winning experiment being conducted. The experiment was streamed live by Oxford Sparks and we had a clear result from the test, as neuroscientist Dr Holly Bridge explains:

The scans show that when you’re getting information that corresponds in both your auditory and your visual system you get a boost in your brain activity. We can detect that the brain does respond differently depending on whether or not you can match the face with the voice; it clearly has a lot to do with expectation.

Stuart and Holly
The brains behind the Big Brain Competition, Dr Holly Bridge and Dr Stuart Clare explained the results of the experiment on a Facebook Live stream

The scientists also wanted to answer as many of the other great brain questions as possible. So a series of articles picks out some of the broad themes in the competition ideas, including lifestyle, muscle memory and stress. Researchers also answered more big questions live on Facebook during this year’s Brain Awareness Week.

We sorted the many entries in the Big Brain Competition into themes such as vision, lifestyle, and language

Thank you to everyone who suggested an experiment or asked a question; it made for a fascinating conclusion to the Brain Diaries exhibition, and has definitely increased the amount of brain activity from staff across the Museum and Oxford Neuroscience… if only there was an MRI scanner for us to see it!

Winners of the Big Brain Competition at the Museum of Natural History with the neuroscientists. Left to right: James, Holly, Stuart, Misha, Richard, Lily, and Heidi

You can still get involved with the Big Brain Competition by trying the winning experiment at home.


1683 and all that…

16836Just a quick post to say that things are pressing ahead with our Natural Histories exhibition, which is being hosted and co-curated by the Museum of the History of Science in Broad Street.

Jewson delivery

This morning, as I arrived at the MHS, Jewson had just delivered the pre-cut MDF boards that we will use to make various plinths and structures for many of the specimens in the exhibition.

But along with this delivery came a sweet little coincidence; perhaps even a good omen. On one of the Jewson boards the order number had been written in black marker pen and the number, which you can see above, was 16836, tantalisingly close to 1683, the year this building was founded by Elias Ashmole as the original Ashmolean Museum. The ‘6’ is even written just a little bit smaller than the ‘year’.

Given that Natural Histories is partly about a temporary return of Oxford University‘s natural history collections to their original home in the building in Broad Street, this is an unusually apposite order reference.

I don’t know when in 1683 the building opened, but I really hope it was June.

Cheryl helps bring the boards into the Museum of the History of Science

Scott Billings, Communications coordinator