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iLabs: Please, Experiment Along With Us – Winogradsky Project!

June 26, 2012

The summer edition of the North Carolina Naturalist magazine carries an activity to do at home called a Winogradsky column.

The Nature Research Center has an exhibit on the third floor that includes 3 large Winogradsky columns.

As part of an effort to teach about these columns, how they work, why they are used, etc. we set up some small columns in the Micro World lab and will be following them all summer and fall here on the blog.

But even more importantly, we invite you to be part of our Winogradsky column project by setting up your own column at home.

We can proceed together via this blog – I will post updates and photos of our columns here in the Micro World lab and you can respond to those posts with  comments about your column. If you have any interesting photos of its progress, you can mail them to and I will try to post some of them.

Then, later this fall we will offer participants an opportunity to register for a symposium-type class  about our Winogradsky column project.  We will discuss the biology and chemistry behind all of this, compare everyone’s results,  and learn how and why NASA is also teaching about this technology especially as  it relates to their efforts in Astrobiology.

The exact date and registration info for the class will be coming later, so stay tuned.

I will write soon to give some helpful background and historical information about these columns, but for now if you would like to “experiment along with us” please do set up a column at home. And to easily locate and follow any future posts on this subject, just use the URL:

Here’s the article with the instructions:

The ground is ALIVE … with the work of microbes

The soil under your feet is alive with more than just earthworms and bugs. Here’s an experiment you can do to see just how alive it is.

First, read about soil and how it is made, as well as bacteria and what they eat.

Second, pick your HYPOTHESIS — for example:

  • Soil is dead, so no bacteria will grow.
  • Soil is alive, so bacteria will grow.
  • A change will occur, but not because of bacteria.

Third, test your hypothesis by building a Winogradsky column, a device invented by scientist Sergei Winogradsky in the 1880s.



  • clear, 2-liter soda bottle
  • clean paint stirrer
  • soil
  • water
  • nutrients
  • foil
  • 40-watt lamp
  • plastic wrap and elastic band
  • some way to record results



Rinse your soda bottle with soap and water until clean. Remove the label. Cut off the top of the bottle at the point where the bottle curves toward the spout. Discard the top — the rest of the bottle will be your column.

Collect enough soil to fill the bottle. Soil can come from a variety of places:

  • Pond, lake or river edges
  • Soil or sand near the ocean
  • Your backyard

Remove any leaves, sticks, rocks or other debris, and break up any clumps so the soil is a uniform mixture. Add water from that same location to the soil and mix it with a clean paint stirrer until it is like thick cream. Do not add too much water.

Mix nutrients into the soil. Nutrients include sources of sugar, carbon, sulfur, phosphorus, nitrogen and minerals. Examples are: shredded newspapers or paper towels (sugar and carbon); raw egg or powdered hard-boiled egg yolk (sulfur); manure, ground-up dried grass, leaves or pine needles (nitrogen and phosphorus); and ground-up egg shells or baking soda (minerals).

Add the soil, water and nutrient mix to the bottle, a couple of inches at a time. Use the paint stirrer to remove all air bubbles and pat the mixture down. Fill to within 3 inches of the top. Pour 1 inch of the remaining water over the surface of the soil mix.

Cover the bottle with plastic wrap held on by an elastic band. Cover the entire column in foil and leave it like this for two weeks. Then unwrap the foil and shine a lamp with a 40-watt bulb on the column (24 hours a day) or place the column in a sunny window. Periodically remove the plastic wrap to release any trapped gas.

Results, Conclusions & Further Investigations

Observe the container over the next several months and record/photograph your results. We invite you to share your results and compare them to others here. You can also visit the Nature Research Center’s Winogradsky column exhibit and the Micro World Investigate Lab (both on the third floor) to learn more.

–        Deb Bailey, co-coordinator of the Micro World Investigate Lab

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