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The Microbe Understander

These are exciting times for Dr. Julia Busch. Whether on the coasts of the North Sea and Baltic Sea, whether on the Weser, Elbe, Saale, Fulda, or Havel – everywhere on June 21st, the summer solstice, people will be filling a little tube of water. They will pull out their mobile phones and take photos of the water’s color. They will measure the water temperature with thermometers. All these samples, photos, and data will be sent to Bremen, to the marine scientist and her colleagues, and they will provide information on the state of German waters.

Dr. Julia Busch

Dr. Julia Busch works for “My Ocean Sampling Day” (MyOSD), a joint project of Jacobs University and the Max-Planck-Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, under the direction of Prof. Dr. Frank Oliver Glöckner. For the first time in Germany, hobby scientists are participating on a grand scale in the collection of scientific information on maritime ecosystems; since 2014 the OSD has been held yearly. The goal is clear: “We want to document the influence of people on the rivers and coastal waters,” says the 38-year-old. 
This is being done with the help of the smallest living creatures, who have an extremely dubious reputation: microbes. “Most people associate them with disease, epidemics, and pollution,” explains Dr. Julia Busch. Actually, they are the “good guys.” They break down dead biological material and reintroduce it to the nutrient cycle. Some attack microplastic; others eat oil residue. They consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. About half the oxygen breathed by people on land comes from microorganisms in the sea. 
The project “My Ocean Sampling Day” is part of the Science Year 2016*17 – Seas and Oceans, which is dedicated to investigating the waters, their protection, and their sustainable use. It is being organized by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the Science in Dialog (WiD – Wissenschaft im Dialog) initiative.
In their team at Jacobs University and the Max-Planck-Institute, the Bremen scientist is known as the microbe understander. Even in her doctoral work, she dealt with these smallest of creatures, although not with bacteria, but with dangerous algal blooms in aquacultures in Spain. The sea, its serenity, vastness, and variety have fascinated her since she first went there as a young woman to dive – and she knows it well. Study and research stays have taken her to the coasts of Australia, Mexico, Peru, and Indonesia.
Despite their enormous significance for life, our knowledge of the spread and function of microbes is meager, especially in German rivers and coastal waters. The MyOSD project is intended to help change that. How do cities and industry affect the diversity of species? How does the microbial community change from the source of a river to its mouth? These are some of the fascinating questions that interest researchers.
And to Dr. Julia Busch, the participation of citizens is especially important. “In the contact between scientists, decision-makers, and citizens, there is still a lot of room for improvement,” she believes. “Citizen science” is the approach designed to involve citizens more intensively, not just as suppliers of data. For instance, MyOSD developed a special questionnaire for all those who would like to participate. “We want to know what people would like to research.”
About 800 so-called sampling kits have already been distributed by MyOSD for sampling. If you hurry, you still have time to collect microorganisms. In research institutes along the coast, from Wilhelmshaven to Bremen, Tönning, Kiel, and Warnemünde, even as far as Stralsund, sampling materials are ready to be picked up (list of facilities at:
Even those who don’t have an opportunity to join in the sampling can still participate – with the help of two free apps for Android smartphones and iPhones. The OSD Citizen app is used, among other things, to record the water temperature, which can be measured with a normal household thermometer. The EyeOnWater-Colour app can be used to take and send photos of the water’s surface. The color of the water is an indicator of the material load; the greener the water, the more microalgae it contains. “It would be great to have as many pictures of the water as possible,” says Dr. Julia Busch. “They would help us complete the puzzle we are dealing with.”
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