Win 2011 – Honors Microbial Ecology course

FISH/Honors 221A                           Ecology and Evolution of the Microbe (5) NW

Instructor: Claire Horner-Devine,

Course website:

This course is for UW or SAFS honors students OR students in SAFS or Ocean who have a 3.3 gpa and are interested in possibly doing departmental honors.  If this description fits you, contact Lin Murdock (

Microbes are the oldest, most abundant and diverse group of organisms on Earth. In this course students will gain an understanding of the fundamentals of ecology and evolution by exploring the role of microbes in disease, ecosystem functioning and extreme environments.  When most people think of microbes they think of one thing – disease. But most microbes do not cause disease; in fact, they are essential for our survival. Microbes exist everywhere, in soil, in water, in air, at the bottom of the oceans, and deep in the earth’s crust. And they thrive in environments that we usually think of as deadly, environments such as boiling water, ice, on radioactive substances and in environments without oxygen. In this course, we will learn about some of these amazing creatures and how biologists discover and study them. We will begin with an introduction to the incredible diversity of microbes and methods used to study these communities of tiny organisms. The rest of the quarter will be comprised of three units:

  • Microbes and disease: We will explore the current understanding of the role that microbial species and communities play in diseases of humans, plants and animals.
  • Microbes and ecosystems: Next, we will explore the role that microbes play in the functioning of both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. We will then examine the impact that anthropogenic changes, such as invasive species and climate change, have on microbial community structure and function.
  • Early evolution and microbes at the extremes: We will investigate the ability of microorganisms to live in extreme environments such as deep sea vents, geothermal hotsprings, Antarctic ice and possibly on other planets as well as what insights we can gain about early evolution.

The course will be comprised of lectures, team presentations, discussions and an independent poster project. The readings in this course are key to developing a strong foundation for learning to think like a scientist and for the poster project.  Basic microbiology concepts will be covered by selected readings from the textbook “Brock Biology of Microorganisms.” Primary literature and secondary source articles (posted on the class website and handed out in class) will provide examples of the state of current research on these topics. Reading discussions will be presented and facilitated by teams of students.