Microscope viewing
December 26, 2005 6:03 PM   Subscribe

Any biologists in the house? What would be a recommended book for identifying bacteria, pollen, and other nitnoy under a regular microscope?

I recently got a good microscope and figure there must be decent (and cheap) atlases for this purpose.

I'm also intent on doing practical stuff with it. Next time the doctor says it's a "bacterial infection" and sends me out with some pills, I can do my own cultures (guess I'll need some agar).

Any other neat stuff I can do? Guess I should have grown up in the 1950s when this stuff was cool.
posted by chef_boyardee to Science & Nature (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I was pretty impressed when my lab partner in ninth grade said "hey, look at this," and it was a live sperm.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:13 PM on December 26, 2005

get some glass slides and a Gram Stain kit. you'll see wondeful things!
posted by brandz at 6:13 PM on December 26, 2005

For old school (1665), check out Hooke's Micrographia available on CD.

For more modern stuff, I don't have any specific recommendations.

How "good" is your microscope? For most of the interesting stuff, you'll want to look at stuff at 1000x oil immersion. Also, you'll want to use staining to help you look at stuff.

As far as identifying microbes, it can be very complicated. If you're really interested, your local college/university might have microbiology/pathology classes that you might be able to take.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 6:14 PM on December 26, 2005

Response by poster: The microscope is binocular, up to 1600x.
posted by chef_boyardee at 6:16 PM on December 26, 2005

Stains can be difficult to find outside of specialist suppliers but methyl violet can be found at your local Chinatown (it's sold as a topical "medicine" for small cuts and can be used for gram staining.

As brandz mentions, live sperm is interesting to look at. Other things that are neato and won't need staining include: blood, crystals (dissolve different salts, put a drop on a slide, cover with a coverslip, and let dry), pond water (for zooplankton), household dust, and pollen.

Culturing bacteria is a whole 'nother kettle of fish and will be very frustrating without a laminar flow hood and autoclave. Also in addition to the agar (which can also be found at your local Chinatown), there are many different media for growing different kinds of bacteria although concentrated chicken broth is sufficient for some kinds of bacteria.

However, it can be successfully done with kitchen supplies. Actinomycetes are a fascinating kind of bacteria present commonly in soil and water and make very colourful cultures and are interesting to look at under the 'scope. Many modern antibiotics were first found being produced by actinomycetes. As a "can it be done" question, I've managed to enrich solid cultures with soil actinomycetes, screen them against a bacterial lawn of e. coli, and isolate pure cultures of actinomycetes that produce antibiotics (or at least substances that can kill e. coli).

So... it can be done without specialized materials, but it's a pain in the arse.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 7:15 PM on December 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

As far as identifying bacteria go, you won't get very far with just a microscope. All a microscope will let you do is identify their gram reaction and morphology (rods/cocci etc). To identify the species--which is critical to differentiate between, say, S. aureus and its harmless relatives, you need biochemical tests. Most clinical microbiology labs have automated machines for this, because they can do it more accurately, with less contamination, and with less waste of chemicals; but if you really are dying to give it a shot, you'll need something like API strips and an incubator.

Fungi, however, are just the opposite--morphology is everything. Clinical mycology is largely done with a microscope, and biochemical tests are secondary. Look for books on mycology (or, if you're just interested in medically significant bugs, clinical mycology.)

Google for "microscopy", the fancy term for the field you're interested in.
posted by Brian James at 8:08 PM on December 26, 2005

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