Team:St Andrews/Public Engagement


Public Engagement

Microbiome of Scotland

Project overview

The project

As part of our ongoing education and public engagement efforts this year we continued to develop the Microbiome of Scotland project started as part of iGEM last year.

The project involves a series of activities for primary school children focusing on the attributes of bacteria, what DNA is, and the living world of microbes around us, as well as an introduction to synthetic biology.

At the beginning of this lesson, the students collect soil samples from around their schools, which are then returned to the university for metagenomic sequencing to determine the microbiome of those particular sites. These profiles are then placed on an interactive map of Scotland, where users can click on locations to see what the content of the microbiome is there and how it differs from other parts of the country. Each lesson culminates in an activity during which the children visualise the DNA from polyploid fruit, including strawberries, bananas, kiwis, and mangos, using a buffer, a detergent, and ethanol.


The goal of the project is to give primary aged students an introduction into the world of research and to demonstrate to them that they can have a meaningful impact on research regardless of their age. Meanwhile, we are also working on producing an interactive resource that can be used to conduct research into microbiome populations in urban areas in Scotland.

Expanding the reach of the project

Fife teacher training day

During the planning stage of the project last year the team met up with Dr Margaret Ritchie, who aids in producing the Scottish science curriculum, in order to ensure that the project we were planning would be one that would be of value to the students and teachers. Margaret advised us on resources we could draw from, the target age group for the project and brought to light some of the challenges we might have. One of these was the limited facilities at some of the schools. She also brought up the point that some schools in more remote regions of Scotland can be difficult to reach. Margaret also suggested that this project would be a good opportunity for trainee teachers to get more experience in teaching science.

This year we carried on addressing the points that Margaret made last year. In September, we attended a teacher training day in Fife to demonstrate some of the activities involved to local teachers. Through this we aim to not only make the project more accessible to a wider range of students by removing the need for us to attend the schools to deliver the sessions, but also to make the project self sustainable.

Edinburgh UG and OG iGEM teams Edinburgh Zoo collaboration

In order to make the project available for a wider range of people, not limited to students in primary schools, we collaborated with the University of Edinburgh UG and OG teams to deliver a session at the Edinburgh Zoo of Friday the 30th of August.

As part of this sessions alongside a presentation on bacteria, DNA, synthetic biology and sequencing the attendees collected soil samples from various areas around the zoo. Following this, they completed a worksheet on visual analysis of the soil including texture, colour and smell and conducted a test to determine the pH of the soil sample. Finally, the attendees completed a ‘sequencing’ activity matching gels, to graphs and base sequences.

Elsa explaining the sequencing activity

Fig 1.a: Elsa from Edinburgh Univeristy UG iGEM team explaining the sequencing activity.

Ivan setting up the presentation

Fig. 1.b: Ivan from Edinburgh University OG team setting up the presentation.

pH results

Fig. 1.c: Some of the pH results from the experiments completed by the attendees.

Sample locations

Fig. 1.d: Locations from which attendees collected samples.

Whilst speaking to some of the children attending the session, many of them had previously heard of good and bad bacteria but found it interesting to learn that there is bacteria in the soil and that this bacteria can be useful to researchers. In particular many of them enjoyed measuring the pH of the soil and with one commenting on how eager she is to tell her teacher what she did.

In addition to that, some of the adults who attended the session also found it interesting to learn about what synthetic biology is, with all of them saying they hadn’t heard of the area before.

You can find out more the the University of Edinburgh UG team's experience here and the OG team's here

Edinburgh UG iGEM team school collaboration

As part of expanding the reach of the project, we also collaborated with the University of Edinburgh UG iGEM team to deliver the outreach session at the Curie Primary School in Edinburgh. During this session we tried out a new fruit DNA extraction procedure using only items that can be bought from local shops. One of the points raised by Dr Richie was limited access to resources, so we want to ensure there are alternative procedures available so this doesn’t become a limiting factor for a school wishing to take part.

As part of this session we also collected feedback sheets from all 60 of the students taking part. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. All of the students said that they had 'learnt something from the session'. In addition to that, many of them commented on how interesting they found that you could extract DNA from fruit using things from around the house.

One thing we would improve about the activity from this session is allocating time at the end for questions. As part of the survey the students answered the question 'is there anything you would like to ask the researchers?'. There were some great questions including 'is there anywhere bacteria can't live', 'what else could you extract DNA from', 'why can we see the strawberries DNA' and 'what's the difference between bacteria and viruses'. In the future we will take this into consideration when organising the sessions

Ola Sobieska from the University of Edinburgh iGEM team delivered two sessions to the school and said the following about her experience:

“The outreach helped me develop my confidence in public speaking to a greater variety of people. It also made me realise how much primary school children actually know about synthetic biology, which would aid in tailoring my outreach activities better to their knowledge in the future.”

Edinburgh students participating in the outreach activity

Fig. 2.a: Students participating in the Microbiome outreach activity at the Curie Primary School in Edinburgh completing the DNA extraction part of lesson.

Sample locations

Fig. 2.b: Students participating in the Microbiome outreach activity at the Curie Primary School in Edinburgh collecting soil samples to be sequenced at the University of St Andrews.

Delivering further session in Fife

We have also delivered more sessions ourselves this year. On September the 24th, James from the University of St Andrews iGEM team alongside Calum from the University of St Andrews Public Engagement with Research Department returned to Thornton Primary (a school that we delivered the session to last year) to deliver the session to three other classes. The samples we collected there last year showed great diversity (can be viewed below) and we received very positive feedback from the students following the activity so we were very keen to go back again this year.

James Hammond from the University of St Andrews iGEM team delivered three sessions to the school and said the following about his experience:

“This year's outreach taught me the importance of a well-planned lesson and how hard it is to keep children's attention! That being said, the children were incredibly articulate and I'm much more confident pitching scientific ideas to them at a higher level in the future.”


This year, we have also developed the resources to be used as part of the Microbiome project.

Most notably, we have made sure to adapt our activity to use as few resources as possible to ensure that as many of the people interested can take part. As mentioned above we have created a second fruit DNA extraction procedure that just uses common household items. You can view this activity here.

In addition to that our normal sequencing activity require a coloured worksheet to be printed per student. We have created an adapted presentation, to be used by teachers, that includes the sequencing activity questions. This way students can write their solutions on a piece of paper one question at a time reducing the number of pages that need to be printed and hence both reducing the cost and being more environmentally friendly. For the sequencing activity we also create a more difficult alternative, which we successfully tried out at the Edinburgh Zoo activity. You can view this activity here. During the activity students need to match up images of gels, graphs and base sequences into groups of three. One of the aims of the activity is to demonstrate how sequencing has progressed and how much advances in technology have helped to speed up the time it takes to determine a DNA sequence.


Below is an interactive map of some of the places we collected samples as part of the Microbiome of Scotlandproject. We would like to say a huge thank you to all the schools that took part and made this possible. If you would like to view the sequencing results from the dots marked in red please drop us an email.

School of Biology

School of Chemistry

School of Mathematics

School of CS

School of Physics

School of Philosophy

Sir Kenneth Murray Endowment Fund

iGEM St Andrews 2019