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dig-6There is a considerable distance between Guildford, where Dr Simon Park in the University of Surrey is based, and my studio on the Lake District fringes. A factor that impacts on my collaborative project with the microbiologist, Immortal Worlds?, and the development of my scientific understanding of methanongens.  To assist in addressing this distance I decided to create my own Winogradsky columns last weekend.

silberthwaite-common-site-welliesA Winogradsky column is a device for culturing a diverse miniature ecosystem – a process developed in 1880 by Sergei Winogradsky. Basically, a column of extracted mud, plus added nutrients, creates am aerobic/anaerobic gradient plus a sulphide gradient over a period of months.  The two gradients vary depending on the added ingredients but all promote the growth of different organisms: Clostridium, DesulfovibrioChlorobiumChromatiumRhodomicrobium, and Beggiatoa, as well as many other species of bacteria, cyanobacteria, and algae.

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As child fond of making mud pies in the middle of our unmade, puddled lane the silent infant within was excited at the prospect of revisiting that joy. And the process didn’t disappoint – mixing 0.25% egg yolks (calcium sulphate), 0.5% ground eggshells (calcium carbonate), shredded newspaper (carbon) and mud together was gloriously messy. Clearing up took longer than mixing the recipe.


The mixture was paddled into the base of a clear glass demijohn filling it to a third, then adding another third of mud on its own from the same site, adding 1/6 site water and leaving 1/6 as space. The containers were tightly sealed with a rubber bungs to prevent evaporation and then placed in the large windows of my studio, as light is key to the development of the ecosystems. Demijohns are great for sturdiness but the entrance hole being so narrow proved a challenge – a homemade funnel made out of an old drinks bottle proved the answer.

The mud was sampled from two sites – one freshwater, the other seawater – the differences will enhance the study over the next three to six weeks as the ecosystems become established.

subberthwiate-common-site Morecambe-Bay-dig

Unlike the Winogradsky columns I created last December in Norfolk with Dr Park, these will not be kept in the heat cabinets. The columns are not part of our trial to monitor the impact of climate change on methanogens, but rather a way for me to reduce the distance between my artist’s understanding and the science, whilst being inspired by the wondrous process happening live in my studio.

Images below show the mud on day 2 – left freshwater mud from Subberthwaite Common, near Ulverston Cumbria https://www.google.co.uk/maps/place/Subberthwaite+Common/@54.278406,-3.124666,1711m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m2!3m1!1s0x0:0x6b70d063a5334d7a and right demijohn has mud from Morecambe Bay https://www.google.co.uk/maps/search/Sea+Wood,+Aldingham,+South+Lakeland+District/@54.1531111,-3.0881751,1716m/data=!3m1!1e3