Spotlight on Grants: Applied Microbiology in Uganda

Every year, the Microbiology Society awards grants from its International Development Fund to support members’ activities in countries where microbiology teaching or diagnostics require development. Dr Kostas Gkatzionis writes about his trip to Uganda earlier this year to run activities on applied microbiology for students at Kyambogo University.

Food microbiology is essential to build capacity in Uganda for food safety and quality testing, as well as increasing Uganda’s chances of full participation in international food trade. This is why in January 2017, together with Dr Ediriisa, I organised three weeks of activities on applied microbiology at Kyambogo University, with a focus on techniques for characterising bacterial flora in fermented foods.

Seventy-eight people took part, including University staff, researchers, undergraduates and postgraduates, as well as scientists from government and the food industry. We delivered a series of lectures, ranging from the DNA–RNA–Protein complex to emerging trends like nanomaterials and their interaction with microbes. We also ran a computer-based exercise on ComBase as an example of a predictive microbiology tool to advance food safety with minimal, and free, resources.

One particular highlight was a visit to the laboratories of the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI). We were welcomed by Dr Henry Wagaba, Head of the Biosciences Laboratory, and there the students took part in sequencing food microbes, including DNA extraction, PCR amplification and gel electrophoresis.

For the undergraduate students, visiting the institute was a unique experience, and something that they wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to do. NaCRRI is one of the few places in Uganda with equipment to support molecular biology analyses and the practical aimed to demonstrate the principles of microbial identification while exposing the students to a research-driven environment.

Lastly, we organised a conference in Najjera, 10km from Kampala city centre. The theme was ‘Multidisciplinary Approach in Food Research: Offering Solutions for National Development’, and I presented examples of projects and research case studies linking applied sciences to the food industry.

The conference was attended by the Vice Chancellor and University Senior Management as well as the public and the press, and attracted delegates from academia, food businesses and government authorities. Such conferences on microbiology are extremely rare in Uganda and its surrounding countries, and the event highlighted the contribution of Kyambogo University and its potential capacity for establishing a biannual microbiology event in the region.

The visit to Uganda also initiated valuable networking opportunities that otherwise would be impossible to achieve, and naturally, we discussed potential future collaborations and grant applications . The materials shared through the teaching activities led to new teaching resources for programmes at Kyambogo University.

I would strongly recommend this grant scheme, and we are grateful to the Microbiology Society. The programme was positively received by the students, and I was impressed with their approach to learning, and their genuine and enormous gratitude for what is considered a given in the UK. However, the activity was very educational for myself too. Understanding the culture and way of business in Uganda is essential before designing joint grant applications or joint teaching programmes aiding the European–African collaboration.

Through such training programmes, the country is empowered with skills for effective detection of foodborne pathogens. They also advance research into fermented foods that are central in the Ugandan diet and essential for nutrition and food sustainability in rural areas. We hope this will gradually be a stimulus for more microbiologists in Uganda, which will provide the basis for strengthening the country’s food control system. In the long run, this could lead to the promotion of population health, agricultural productivity and the expansion of international food trade.

Kostas Gkatzionis

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Why don’t archaea cause disease?

Are there really no archaeal pathogens? And if not, why not?

Dr James Chong explores these questions in a film and article for Microbiology Today.
Read the full comment piece here.

For a microbe, pathogenesis is a fundamentally bad idea. From an anthropomorphic point of view, why would you kill the host that is providing you with food and board at no cost? Is this not a poorly thought-through error of judgement? Surely a much better approach to propagation of one’s progeny is to hide in a corner and hope you’re not noticed? By minimising the burden on your host – or, better yet, offering them some service – they are more likely to tolerate, or even encourage, your presence. Continue reading

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What is the Nagoya Protocol? How does it relate to microbiology?

Microbiology is an interconnected discipline, with researchers all over the world sharing samples and genetic data at an ever increasing pace. But how can we ensure that everyone can also benefit from any discoveries made? In this post, Katie Beckett from the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) tells us about the Nagoya Protocol, which aims to ensure that research benefits are shared in an equitable way.

Throughout human history, micro-organisms have played a critical role in the development of human society. From brewing beer to the Black Death, their impact has been significant, and microbiologists such as van Leeuwenhoek and Fleming have earned their place in history. Today, microbiology is a fundamental discipline in driving forward innovative research and new product development, such as producing new antibiotics to combat increasing drug resistance or studies into the effects of microbial communities on carbon and nitrogen cycles and resulting impacts on climate change. Microbiology is applied across a whole host of sectors and research areas with the micro-organisms themselves often being sourced from specialist collections around the world. In the first instance however, these genetic resources come from nature, existing in every part of the global biosphere – from the soil, atmosphere, and ocean, to hot springs and rock formations.

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Podcast: Good Germs, Bad Germs

Have you ever wondered about the kinds of microbes that are present in your kitchen? In the fruit bowl or the fridge, on your chopping boards or cleaning cloths?

Good Germs Bad Germs is a citizen science project from the University of Oxford, allowing people to experiment on the microbial life in their kitchens and to visualise the results.

This month, we went to Oxford to visit one of the households taking part in the project, and spoke to researchers Dr Jamie Lorimer and Dr Beth Greenhough about they’ve found.

More information at

Anand Jagatia

Image courtesy of the researchers
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New microbes found in vultures, rattlesnakes and Japanese burial mounds

There are plenty of exciting finds this month so let’s dive straight in.

Researchers from China have discovered two new species of bacteria from two different species of Old World vulture in the Tibetan Plateau. Vultures may be a source of infectious pathogens as they feed on rotting carcasses and also scavenge the corpses from sky burials. To study the microbiome of vultures in this part of the world, the team live-captured wild birds and took rectal swabs, isolating the bacteria Actinomyces liubingyangii and Actinomyces vulturis.

 A team from the US has isolated a bacterium from a timber rattlesnake in Minnesota, which they name Enterococcus crotali. Timber rattlesnakes are an animal we’ve written about before, as they’re one of the species that has been hit hard by snake fungal disease in North America. Continue reading

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A killer snake fungus has been found in wild British snakes for the first time

Back in April 2016, we wrote about an emerging disease that’s been killing wild snake populations in North America. Snake fungal disease, or SFD, is an infection that leads to blisters and lesions on snakes’ skin, turning scales yellow and crusty, and making eyes clouded and milky. Last year, scientists identified that the disease is caused by Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, a fungus that eats the keratin in infected tissue (the same protein found in nails and hair, although O. ophiodiicola only infects snakes).

SFD is of growing concern in the eastern US, where it’s causing declines in already fragile snake populations. Now, for the first time, SFD has been detected in wild snakes outside America – here in Great Britain it’s been found in grass snakes, while in mainland Europe a single infected dice snake has been identified.

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Parliamentary Links Day 2017

Each year, the Royal Society of Biology organises ‘Parliamentary Links Day’, an event that brings together parliamentarians and the scientific community to discuss matters of importance to both. The 2017 event was attended by several Microbiology Society staff and members, including Dr Karen Robinson from the University of Nottingham, who gave us her thoughts about the day.

The theme of this year’s Parliamentary Links Day was ‘UK Science and Global Opportunities’ – a subject close to my heart, since I have been concerned about the impact of Brexit on PhD students and research scientists at the University of Nottingham. Many of the postdocs and research students in my building are from other EU countries and these people have expertise and skills that are in high demand. Understandably, there is concern from this group about what will happen when the UK withdraws from the EU, and I was hoping that Links Day would provide some information to ease their insecurities a little.

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