Make a Home for Microbes

Make a Home for Microbes

Grade Level

6 - 8




Life Science

Activity Type:

How to Make Your Own Winogradsky Column

Your body is home to trillions and trillions of tiny living things called microbes, and most of them live in your digestive tract.

1 bacteria long

And no wonder, it is a warm and sheltered place filled with food—a perfect spot for bacteria! But not all microbes live in the same place. Based on the habitat they’re most suited for, different species of bacteria live in different parts of the tract.

Take an interactive tummy tour here.


Build an ecosystem for microbes to see how they separate into their own habitats.

2 winogradsky long
The Winogradsky column was named after Sergei Winogradsky, a Russian microbiologist.

With just a few cupfuls of mud and other simple ingredients, you can create an entire ecosystem for bacteria called a Winogradsky column. In this sealed system, microbes reuse and recycle nutrients continuously. Over time, different species separate into visible layers depending on how they use—or don’t use—oxygen, light, and nutrients such as carbon or sulfur. Each bacterial species finds its habitat according to its needs—much like in your digestive tract.


What You Need: The Bottle

a 2-liter plastic bottle


permanent marker

large rubber band

plastic wrap

data collection notebook

crayons, color pencils, or markers

camera (optional)

What You Need: Ingredients


shovel and bucket (to dig and carry the mud)

water (from the tap or your mud source)

pitcher or small plastic bottle (to carry the water)

spoon and 2 mixing bowls (1 large, 1 medium)

a page of newspaper, shredded

an egg yolk (raw or hard-boiled)

rubber boots and old clothes that can get muddy (optional)

gloves (optional)

  • Part 1: Prepare the Stuff

    Click through the slideshow to see the steps to prepare the ingredients for your Winogradsky column.

  • Step 1

    Carefully cut off the curved top of the plastic bottle. Ask an adult to help you.

  • Step 2

    Draw two short lines on the bottle: one about a quarter from the bottom of the bottle, the other a quarter of the way from the top.

  • Steps 3 & 4

    Dig up mud from a pond, rain puddle, or riverbed. The mud is full of microbes! Fill your bucket with enough mud to fill the plastic bottle.

    Remove rocks, twigs, or other solid matter from mud. Be careful of broken glass.

  • Step 5

    Collect water from the mud source (or use tap water).

  • Steps 6 & 7

    Cut a sheet of newspaper into thin strips. Then, cut the strips into tiny rectangles. These will provide carbon for the microbes in the mud.

    If using a hard-boiled egg, ask an adult to help you cook it. The yolk will provide sulfur for the microbes in the mud.

  • Step 8

    Put enough mud into the large mixing bowl to fill three-quarters of the bottle. Add water and stir until mud is the consistency of a milkshake.

  • Step 9

    Transfer about one-fourth of the mud-shake into the medium mixing bowl. Stir in a handful of shredded newspaper and add the egg yolk.

  • Part 2: Make the Ecosystem

    Click through the slideshow to learn how to combine ingredients inside your Winogradsky column.

  • Step 10

    Spoon the egg yolk and newspaper mud mixture into the plastic bottle until it’s about a quarter of the way from the bottom (stop at the line). Once in a while, gently tap the bottle on on a hard surface to remove air pockets as the mud settles to the bottom.

  • Step 11

    Spoon the regular mud mixture into the bottle until it’s about a quarter of the way from the top (stop at the line). Gently tap the bottle on the table to remove air pockets.

  • Step 12

    Top with a little bit of water, leaving about an inch of air at the top.

  • Step 13 & 14

    Cover the bottle with plastic wrap and secure with a rubber band.

    Place your column in a brightly lit place.

Part 3: Track the Microbes' Movement

15 trimmed step 15 and 16 finished columnOver the next eight to ten weeks, watch for various color layers to form as microbes separate into their habitats.

At least once a week, on the same day at the same time, write down and draw any changes you see, including colors, the movement or thickening of sediment, and any differences between the side facing the light and the once facing away. You can also take photos for comparison. Note the day and time the photo was taken.



Part 4: Identify the Microbes

Just as no two people’s gut microbes are exactly the same, no two Winogradsky columns are the same. Depending on the microbes present and the amount of nutrients available, many different layers may form.

Check out some common microbes that might grow in your column. Does yours include any of them?

16 Winogradsky Column Anatomy

A: Oxygen levels are highest at the top of the column. Microbes that that grow here use oxygen and not sulfur.

B: Sulfur levels are highest at the bottom of the column. Microbes that grow here can survive without oxygen and instead use sulfur.

C: Some microbes use different wavelengths of visible light to make food. The first changes you see might be green or purple spots on the side of the column facing the light source. These spots are photosynthetic microbes. If there is too much light or not enough light, these microbes will not grow.

D: GREEN Cyanobacteria
Oxygen levels are highest near the top. Here, cyanobacteria use sunlight, carbon, and hydrogen to produce energy while giving off oxygen.

E: PURPLE, BROWN, ORANGE, RED Non-sulfur bacteria
In the mud in the middle, purple non-sulfur bacteria get energy from sunlight and carbon. They convert carbon-rich plant materials, like newspapers, into carbon dioxide.

F: PURPLE AND DARK GREEN Sulfur bacteria
A little lower, purple and green sulfur bacteria use light, carbon, and hydrogen.

G: BLACK Sulfur-reducing bacteria
Sulfur levels are highest near the bottom. Here, sulfate-reducing bacteria that cannot tolerate oxygen use the egg yolk. This process releases hydrogen sulfide, which, not surprisingly, smells like rotten eggs!

Experiment with More Winogradsky Columns!

Want to see how varying nutrients and sunlight will affect the microbe layers? Create more columns with these different conditions and compare the results.

17 vary the nutrients

18 vary the nutrients copy

19 vary source microbes

Want to Learn More About Microbes?

The Secret World Inside You exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History explores the rapidly evolving science that is revealing the complexities of the human microbiome and reshaping our ideas about human health.

11b. Gut game_DF_151102_4692

Illustrations: © Liz Vernon/AMNH, Photos: L. Johnsonii, courtesy of Kathryn Cross/Institute of Food Research; Sergei Winogradsky, © Wikimedia Commons; Materials and steps, © AMNH

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About The American Museum of Natural History

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City is one of the world’s preeminent scientific, educational, and cultural institutions, drawing millions of visitors each year. Visit for more information.

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