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iLabs: Hostess Twinkie Chemistry is Coming to the Micro World This Thursday Night!

September 2, 2014

Yes, the Twinkies are coming!  Beware or be there, depending on how you feel about Twinkies.

We are going to explore their history, why we love them, what’s in them, how long they really last, and just how frenzied everyone got when they almost disappeared.

Along the way we’ll have some analytical food chemistry, some neurogastronomy, and even a touch of liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry. You didn’t know Twinkies could catalyze such a wide-ranging class, did you?

Everyone will leave with a package of Twinkies and the top 4 recipes for making your own Twinkies, from the’s Twinkie challenge.  The recipes include gluten-free, organic and even vegan Twinkies with Soy cream filling!

In addition, three lucky people will leave with either a Twinkies baking pan, or one of two books including the new Twinkie Recipe book (complete with a recipe for Twinkie sushi).

There’s still room to join us.  Here’s the registration info and any questions, contact the scheduling coordinator, Debbie Huston,  or call 919.707.9840.

Now, for those of you old enough to remember this 1960s era commercial (or for those either too young, or those who won’t admit to remembering it), here you go!  Come join the fun this Thursday night!!

And to those who want to know more about how we use Twinkies in our science classes, that post is still in the works!  We don’t just stop at Chemistry though!! :)



iLabs: Catch of the Day — The First Settlers

August 30, 2014

In this latest “Catch Of The Day!” post, Micro World Staff member Nancy Locquet discusses our Lab’s “First Settlers,”  the Pioneer Protists of the iLab’s micro-ecosystem.

Pioneer Protists

When scientists talk about ecosystems, they define it as a community of living organisms (biotic factors) such as plants, animals and microorganisms in a specific area where these living organisms function as a unit and interact with one another and with the physical environment (abiotic factors).

The latter are the non-living components such as the local atmosphere, type of soil or water, the temperature, air, humidity, salinity… Ecosystems can be big, such as the Atlantic Ocean, or they can be so tiny you need a microscope to see what’s going on in that “micro-ecosystem” such as a drop of pond water.

The interesting fact is, ecosystems change constantly and are dynamic entities susceptible to the impact of human activities—logging, for instance—or natural disasters, such as earthquakes, avalanches, wildfire, floods, landslides, erosion and many other natural and human interventions.

These natural and environmental catastrophic events are perceived as life-changing; devastating even, but, once in a while, they can bring a positive spin to things. Some ecosystems are born out of the ashes of volcanic eruptions or may be “reborn” through the clearing effects of wildfires. Think about North Carolina’s Long- Leaf Pine Savannas for instance. This ecosystem would simply disappear along with the many endangered plants and animals if fire didn’t occur periodically.

You might ask, what does this have to do with the microorganisms in the pond water samples in the Micro World iLab?

Well, we were wondering if micro-ecosystems follow the same natural laws as their macro counterparts. Can a new micro-ecosystem be created and will it be a suitable habitat for protozoans and algae?

To examine this possibility, we introduced a clean unused synthetic sponge to our fish tank. Since we don’t use chemicals to treat the fish tank, it resembles natural pond water. The sponge is about 1×1.5×2.5 inches and was attached to a rock with a clear fishing line. This bright green synthetic sponge became a “hot-spot” for our Pouch snails and our Ramshorn snails that inhabit our fish tank. The color didn’t seemed to bother them and they seemed to like the texture of the sponge.

Pouch snails exploring the surface of a synthetic sponge in a pond water aquarium

Pouch snails exploring the surface of a synthetic sponge in a pond water aquarium

Soon, debris from the fish tank and some droppings from fish and snails were covering the sponge. We left it in the tank for about 3 weeks until we had to remove it to treat the tank for possible parasites. The filter was replaced and the algae were scraped from the sides of the fish tank. This seemed the perfect time to check what was in our synthetic micro-ecosystem.

Would we see the first settlers of the green sponge? Water was squeezed from the sponge with a set of tweezers and collected in a clean petri dish. A wet-mount was made using a plastic disposable pipet to collect a drop of the water…the slide was placed under the microscope and set to 10 x magnification and we all watched eagerly to see what happened… A familiar life form was dashing over the screen, clearly healthy, happy and super-fast…it was a Euplotes.

Euplotes in pond water

Euplotes in pond water.

These were not the only unicellular protists that we encountered. Some of the other pioneer protists were beautiful delicate Vorticella clustered together on some pieces of green algae. They were small and were only visible at the highest magnification (40x).

Vorticella in pond water

Vorticella in pond water.

Some Colpidium were very active as well, dashing like busy bees over the slide.

Colpidium in pond water

Colpidium in pond water.

Last but not least, we saw our most common protists Paramecia and Rotifers.

Paramecium in pond water

Paramecium in pond water.

Rotifers in pond water

Rotifers in pond water.

Since these were the organisms that we discovered on a newly introduced “synthetic” micro-ecosystem, we call these first settlers our Pioneer Protists from the Green Sponge. Since it all began in a new habitat, uninfluenced by any pre-existing communities, we could technically call this a primary succession (whereas it would be called a secondary succession if the pre-existing communities were already disrupted by a disturbance)

We tried to keep the first settlers alive by placing the sponge in a container with pond water, aerating it and placing it inside the dark box where other cultures reside, but a few days later bacteria had started to colonize the container and a foul odor came from its flask. We clearly had to dispose of this culture.

However, we have already placed a new sponge in the fish tank in the hope that we can recreate this event, and possibly keep the First Settlers going.

So now…if you see a sponge in the fish tank…you know why.

#BugSnap: Submit your photos today.

August 26, 2014


Viewing bugs through a different lens.

This year we are embracing social media for BugFest and want to see how you capture photos of bugs, the big and the small. We recently launched our new education Twitter account @NatSciLearn and we want to see how you capture the beauty of bugs in your local park, your backyard, school, or even in the office, whether your photos are taken via Instagram, smartphone or traditional camera.

How To Submit:

1.  Compose tweet to @NatSciLearn with a brief description of the bug and where you found it and the hashtag #BugSnap.

2. Upload your photo and publish your tweet.

3. Please submit original work.

4. We will retweet several a day for all the world to see in the days leading up to BugFest.

5. We ask that no bugs be are harmed in the process.

BugFest is just around the corner so get snapping! 


Here is an example:


iLabs: A Vacation Promise!

August 26, 2014

Just a quick note to our readers to let you know we have some new posts in the works, and they’ll be up soon.  We’ll have everything from some new “Catch of the Day” posts, to  Mystery Creatures even WE haven’t been able to identify in our protozoan cultures, and I haven’t forgotten the two remaining promised  posts to explain what a spectrophotometer and grass, and what Twinkies are all doing in our lab!  Taking a vacation, to visit a different kind of Museum (that’s what Museum people do on their time off!! ) and look for more info to create some “Chemistry in History” classes.

A man driving a horse-drawn carriage in Colonial Williamsburg. Colonial Williamsburg (2463527281)CC BY-SA 2.0  Harvey Barrison from Massapequa, NY, USA - Colonial Williamsburg Uploaded by AlbertHerring

A man driving a horse-drawn carriage in Colonial Williamsburg; Colonial Williamsburg (2463527281)CC BY-SA 2.0
Harvey Barrison from Massapequa, NY, USA – Colonial Williamsburg Uploaded by AlbertHerring

Anyway,  when I return, you’ll have answers and new topics!  Stay tuned!

iLabs: “Catch of the Day” – The Very Hungry Aeolosoma

August 21, 2014

by Micro World Lab staff member Nancy Locquet-Absillis

Munching away, a very hungry, microscopic worm-like organism slides steadily around in the  murky green algae, trapped between a coverslip and a microscope slide.  It is named Aeolosoma (pronounced e’ o lo so’ ma) and it, like most microscopic creatures in our lab, spends most of its time looking for food.

Aeolosoma feeding on plant debris in culture

Aeolosoma feeding on plant debris in culture.

Can you see why this worm is also known as a bristle worm? Large bristle-like hairs called setae (see-t-A) appear to serve as legs and help the Aeolosoma to move around in its environment.

Most Aeolosoma have been commonly found in artificial ecosystems such as sludge digesters, but ours usually hang out in debris at the bottom of the pond water containers.

Very little is known about Aeolosoma species living in nature. We do know that species living in waste disposal systems are capable of processing large amounts of raw sewage into sludge as they digest decaying organic matter and prey on microorganisms such as bacteria and protozoans.

You could compare this microscopic bristle worm with its relative, the earthworm. Both play an important role as decomposers. By digesting detritus, they break down dead organic matter into smaller pieces allowing bacteria and other organisms to further break it down, releasing nutrients in the process.

Aeolosoma with bristles showing

Aeolosoma with bristles and segments visible.

It’s hard to see, but Aeolosoma have segmented bodies.  Most Aeolosoma have about 17 segments but some species have more. It seems that, apart from the head and the first segment behind the head, each segment has 2 sets of setae at either side of its body.

Because Aeolosoma are so big, it’s easy to spot these “giant” worms at a magnification of 4x (this means that the image seen on the EVOS microscope screen is 65x magnified compared to real life).

If you look closely, you can see red-colored pigments in dot-like structures called globules (gland cells) in the outer layer of cells called epidermis. The function of these colored epidermal gland cells is unknown, but since the color of these gland cells can vary from red to brown, green, blue-green, yellow or colorless, it’s an easy tool to identify species.

Aeolosoma with arrow pointing to mouth

Aeolosoma with arrow pointing to mouth.

Its U-shaped mouth is clearly visible in the picture above; it is located underneath its big, rounded, oval shaped head and acts as a very efficient vacuum cleaner, picking up microscopic plants and microorganisms as it meanders through algae and decaying matter.

Tiny little hairs called cilia on the fringes of its mouth are constantly moving, creating the vacuum effect.

Because of the transparency of the Aeolosoma, you can clearly see how the food particles are being digested, bit by bit. The food particles move through its digestive system by the contraction and relaxation of the muscles until it leaves the 1 to 2 mm long body (peristalsis movement).

Some Aeolosoma are excellent swimmers and move smoothly through clear patches of water under the microscope but most of the time, you’ll see them “snuffeling” for food. With an unstoppable appetite, we just consider them the ever-so-very-hungry Aeolosoma.

An Aeolosoma "vacuuming' food into its mouth

An Aeolosoma “vacuuming” food into its mouth.


BugBio: Treehoppers

August 19, 2014

Illustrations of Treehoppers

Illustrations of treehoppers.

We are kicking off Insect Thursday in the Naturalist Center starting at 6:30 pm on Thursday, August 28, 2014, when we will have Olivia Evangelista from the Museu de Zoologis da Universidade de Sao Paulo, Brazil, discussing treehoppers. Dr Evangelista is a visiting postdoc in the genomics research lab in the Nature Research Center. She studies Membracidae, a group of true bugs which exhibits a vast diversity of crazy ornaments.

Treehoppers are a type of small winged insect. There are thousands of species of treehoppers, and they are widely distributed around the world. Treehoppers are of interest mainly because of their fantastic shapes. The prothorax, the body region between the head and the wings, is variously shaped. It often grows up and back over the body and wings, forming bulbs, spines, crescents, or circles. Treehoppers feed on plant juices and lay their eggs in plant tissues.Some treehoppers are called thorn bugs because the resting insects looks like thorns. They range in color from green and blue to bronze and are often marked with spots or stripes. Many treehoppers secrete honeydew, a sweet by-product of digestion. Most of these sap-sucking insects occur in the tropics.

Drop by and talk to our expert about the weird and wonderful world of treehoppers!

For more information contact Cindy Lincoln, coordinator of the Naturalist Center:


iLabs: “Catch of the Day” – Paramecium: The Tarheel Protist!

August 16, 2014

Today’s blog post was created by our Investigate Lab staff and Kai, one of our wonderful volunteers!  Enter the underwater world of a special “Tarheel” – the Paramecium

by the Micro World Investigate Lab staff and volunteers:

Every state has a state bird, but North Carolina’s also got a wonderful candidate for state protist: Paramecium. It looks a bit like a foot with a tarheel, a great match for the Tar Heel State.

A Paramecium feeding on algae in the Micro World lab culture

A Paramecium feeding on algae in the Micro World lab culture

According to Rice University’s Experimental Biosciences Department, a paramecium is pretty large for a protist. It measures roughly half a micrometer in length, about one-sixteenth the length of an eyelash.

All paramecium are entirely covered in cilia, hairlike organs. They beat all at once to propel the paramecium forward, or wherever it wants to go.

Paramecium are well-known for hasty retreats. MicrobeWiki says that paramecium have been seen rotating up to 360 degrees to escape from predators.

Though it probably prefers flight over fight, a paramecium is definitely not defenseless. This protist has spinestrichocysts—lying right underneath its outer cell membrane. If a situation gets too dicey, it shoots them at predators to stave them off.

Another view of a Paramecium in culture

Another view of a Paramecium in culture

Paramecium, like humans, is a heterotroph, a hearty consumer of both plant and animal life.

Because a paramecium is clear, we can easily see what it’s eaten just by looking at it. This particular one seen above, seems to have been eating a lot of microscopic salad: it’s full of green plant matter from algae. That makes complete sense, given the paramecium’s living conditions. They’re lucky enough to be surrounded by their food 24/7. That’s the murky green stuff in the picture.

Paramecium have a mouth-like area called an oral groove running along the upper side of their bodies. It’s lined with fast-moving cilia that work like a conveyer belt to move food down into a paramecium’s body.

Instead of making use of a permanent stomach, a paramecium feeds via a process called phagocytosis. When it takes up food, the paramecium makes itself a temporary “stomach” out of its cell membrane. This vesicle encapsulates the food while the paramecium’s extremely small organs—organelles—pump in digestive enzymes to break down the food product.



Paramecium feeding by phagocytosis

Paramecium feeding by phagocytosis

The paramecium here are exploring, maybe even going out to dinner for some ubiquitous algae.

Sometimes, certain algae live in the body of a paramecium and provide food to it as a sort of “rent.”   That’s a symbiotic relationship, one where both involved species benefit from the arrangement. The bacteria that live in our digestive tracts are part of a symbiotic relationship that humans are part of. The gut bacteria get a place to live, and a share of the food we digest. We can’t digest our food without them, so we benefit, too.



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