Most of the Earth's microorganisms cannot be cultured in a lab, often because they rely on other microbes within their native communities. A Winogradsky column, named for its inventor Sergei Winogradsky, is a miniature, enclosed ecosystem which enriches the microbial communities within a sediment sample, enabling scientists to study many of the microbes that play a vital role in Earth's biogeochemical processes, without needing to isolate and culture them individually.
Typically, mud and water from an ecosystem, such as a pond or a marsh, are mixed. As an optional experiment, salt can be added to this mixture to enrich various halophile species. Next, a small portion of the mixture is supplemented with carbon, usually in the form of cellulose from newspaper, and sulfur, usually from an egg yolk. For another optional experiment, a nail can be added to this mixture to enrich certain Gallionella species. This new mixture is then added to a transparent column, so that the column is one quarter full. Finally, the rest of the mud mixture and more water is added to the column until it is most of the way full.
Succession, which refers to the consecutive development of different microbial communities over time, can be observed in real time with a Winogradsky column. As microbes grow within the column, they consume specific substrates and change the chemistry of their environment. When their substrates are depleted, the original microbes die off and microbes with different metabolic needs can flourish in the altered environment. Over time, visibly distinct layers begin to form, each containing parts of a bacterial community with different microenvironmental needs.
For example, photosynthetic microbes, largely composed of cyanobacteria, form green or red-brown layers near the top of the column. Since photosynthesis produces oxygen, often seen as bubbles in the top portion of the column, a gradient is formed with the highest oxygen concentrations near the top, and the lowest towards the bottom. Depending upon the available substrates, different microbial communities can grow in the anaerobic bottom layer. Bubbles in this layer can indicate the presence of methanogens, which create methane gas via fermentation. Here, the microbial fermentation of cellulose results in organic acids. Sulfate reducers oxidize those acids to produce sulfide, and their activity is indicated by black sediment. Sulfide diffuses upward in the column, creating yet another gradient where sulfide concentrations are highest towards the bottom of the column, and lowest near the top. Towards the middle of the column, sulfur oxidizers utilize the oxygen from above and sulfide from below. With adequate light, photosynthetic sulfur oxidizers, such as green and purple sulfur bacteria, develop. Green sulfur bacteria tolerate higher sulfide concentrations. Thus, they grow directly below the purple sulfur bacteria. Directly above this layer, purple non-sulfur bacteria form a red-orange layer. Nonphotosynthetic sulfur oxidizers are indicated by the presence of white filaments.
Conditions such as light and temperature can also be varied to enrich other communities. In this video, you will learn how to construct a Winogradsky column, and vary the growing conditions and substrates to enrich specific microbial communities.
First, locate an appropriate aquatic ecosystem, such as a pond or marsh. The sediment samples should come from the area near the water's edge, and be completely saturated with water. Then, use a shovel and a bucket to collect one to two liters of the saturated mud. Next, obtain approximately three liters of fresh water from the same source and return to the lab with the field samples.
In the lab, put on the appropriate personal protective equipment, including a lab coat and gloves. Now, transfer approximately 750 milliliters of mud to a mixing bowl. Then, sift through the mud to remove large rocks, twigs, or leaves and use a spoon to break apart any clumps. Next, add some of the fresh water to the mixing bowl, and stir with a large spoon. Add water until the consistency of the water-mud mixture is similar to a milkshake. Continue to make sure there are no clumps.
As an optional experiment, select for halophilic bacteria by adding 25 to 50 milligrams of salt to the mud mixture.
Then, transfer approximately 1/3 of the water-mud mixture to a second mixing bowl. Add one egg yolk and a handful of shredded newspaper to the bowl. Next, add this mixture to the column, until it is about 1/4 full. Next, add the water-mud mixture without the egg and newspaper to the column, until it is approximately 3/4 full. Then, add more water to the column, leaving a 1/2 inch space on top. Cover the column with plastic wrap and secure it with a rubber band.
Incubate the column in the light near a window at room temperature for the next four to eight weeks. Throughout the incubation period, monitor changes in the Winogradsky column at least once a week for the development of different colored layers and the formation of bubbles. Additionally, record the time it takes for different layers to develop.
Another modification that can be done is incubating the column near a radiator to select for thermophilic bacteria, or in a refrigerator to select for psychrophilic bacteria. Vary the light conditions by placing different columns in high light, low light, or darkness to incubate. Alternatively, limit the wavelength of incoming light by covering the column with different shades of cellophane to determine which colors select for different bacterial groups. For another optional experiment, to enrich iron-oxidizing bacteria, add a nail to the mud-water mixture prior to the addition of newspaper and an egg yolk.
After one to two weeks, growth of the cyanobacterial layer is indicated by a green or red-brown film on top of the mud layer of the classical Winogradsky column. Over time, the appearance and evolution of the different layers is monitored, each indicative of the different types of bacteria present. When comparing a column grown in the dark to a traditional Winogradsky column, we see the dark treatment yields the black layer at the bottom of the column, indicative of sulfate-reducing bacteria.
The dark column may also yield other layers, depending on other incubation conditions. Additionally, the dark column doesn't yield the green cyanobacterial layer, nor the red, purple, or green layers indicative of purple non-sulfur, purple sulfur, and green sulfur bacteria respectively. These groups are dependent on light for growth.