Pulling Viruses Out of Thin Air; What the Heck is X-Ray Astronomy, and Why Do We Bother?

“Wednesday Nite @ The Lab” Public Science Talks

Wednesdays at 7pm CT

Room 1111 Genetics Biotech Center, 425 Henry Mall, Madison WI, 


Stream by zoom at go.wisc.edu/240r59


For 7 December 2022

Hi WN@TL Fans,

I was astonished when I first learned that a potato slice bent the arc of microbiology.  I could see how a French fry might, but a slice—how?

Turns out some bacteria like to stick to surfaces, especially surfaces that also have food infused into them.  When you’re a bacterium and you have a way to stick and to grow, to go from one microscopic cell to two, and two to four, and so forth, and the cells all clump together, then eventually the clump can grow big enough to be visible to the human eye.  And voila, you have a bacterial colony, a whole bunch of bacteria that (may have) all started from one founder cell.

So if you’d like to know more about the mixture of microbes that might be growing in a liquid (for example, milk, wine, blood, or water), you could take a drop of the liquid and spread it evenly on the surface of the slice.  Then you keep the slice in a warm, humid place and give the microbes time to grow.  If the microbes were dilute enough, then you could get several colonies appear on the slice. Different bacteria also may have distinct, perhaps definitive, shapes or colors to their colonies.  In this way you can both see and separate out some of the microbes that were originally in the liquid mixture.

Eventually circular Petri plates with their nutrient agar and glass lids replaced potato slices as the surface of choice.  But the idea endured:  to wrangle bacteria in liquids, sometimes it’s essential to grow them instead on a surface.  You can study them and you can also quantify them.

The search for ingenious techniques to collect, detect, discern and quantify microbes has been a vital enterprise in the expanding human understanding of the microbial world, whether they be found in rocks or soils, in plants or animals, in water or milk–or even in the air.  Tonight we get to learn about how this is true even for viruses, the smallest microbes, especially those lurking in the air.


On December 7 Mitchell Ramuta of Professor David O’Connor’s lab will speak on “Pulling Viruses Out of Thin Air.”

Description:  We are using air sampling as an alternative environmental surveillance strategy to improve the detection and monitoring of (re)emerging viruses in the community.

Bio:   Graduate Student in the Cellular and Molecular Biology Ph.D. program, Dr. David O’Connor’s laboratory

Explore More:   There’s Something in the Air: Monitoring Indoor Air for SARS-CoV-2 https://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/blog/theres-something-in-the-air-monitoring-indoor-air-for-sars-cov-2/

Let’s Meet the Virologist (LMtV) Episode 92: Game Changer? Environmental Surveillance for SARS-CoV-2https://lmtv.podbean.com/

In the Air Tonight: COVID Testing Spaces, Not Faces. https://microbiologycommunity.nature.com/posts/in-the-air-tonight-covid-testing-spaces-not-faces


On December 14 Professor Dan McCammon of Physics will speak on “What the Heck is X-ray Astronomy, and Why Do We Bother?”

Description:  A story about how a rocket flight amongst the creepy-crawlies of the Australian boondocks is related to what our Universe is made of, and why you need to cool your X-ray detectors to 1/20th of a degree above absolute zero to look at million-degree gas.

Explore More:  https://wisp.physics.wisc.edu/xray/



And that’ll wrap up the WN@TL lineup for 2022, as we go dark on December 21 and December 28.  We’ll fire back up on January 4, 2023.

Hope to see you soon, in person or by zoom, at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab.

Tom ZinnenBiotechnology Center & Division of Extension, Wisconsin 4-H

Please share this missive with your friends & neighbors. 

If you’ll be watching the Zoom for the first time, please register for the WN@TL Zoom at go.wisc.edu/240r59. 

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WN@TL begins at 7:00pm Central.

You can also watch the web stream at the WN@TL YouTube channel.

UW-Madison:  5.9 million owners, one pretty good public land-grant teaching, research and extension university. 

Visit UW-Madison’s science outreach portal at science.wisc.edu for information on the people, places & programs on campus that welcome you to come experience science as exploring the unknown, all year round. 

Here are the components of the WN@TL User’s Guide

1. The live WN@TL seminar, every Wednesday night, 50 times a year, at 7pm CT in Room 1111 Genetics Biotech Center and on Zoom at go.wisc.edu/240r59 

2. The WN@TL YouTube channel

3. WN@TL on the University Place broadcast channel of PBS Wisconsin 

4. WN@TL on the University Place website 


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