• University of Reading

Small and Mighty: Introduction to Microbiology

Understand the basics of microbiology and explore the diversity of microbial life in our world.

11,684 enrolled on this course

Small and Mighty: Introduction to Microbiology
  • Duration3 weeks
  • Weekly study3 hours
  • LearnFree
  • Extra BenefitsFrom $44Find out more

Discover the fascinating world of microbes

Microbes may be invisible to the eye, but they dominate every environment on Earth – including you. Microbes are often associated with disease yet the majority of species help to keep us alive. How can you distinguish the good from the bad?

On this course, you’ll explore a general introduction to the field of microbiology and investigate the amazing diversity of microbial life. Learn about the significant roles microbes play in health, food, and the environment through expert interviews, lab demonstrations and practical experiments you can try at home.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds We are surrounded by a hidden world of microscopic organisms which affect our lives every day, in mind boggling ways. They first evolved over 4 billion years ago and over time they’ve adapted to thrive in every environment on Earth. Photosynthetic microorganisms in our ocean create more oxygen than all the plants on Earth - but as well as the good guys, there are the bad ones. Despite advances in modern medicine, microbes continue to cause the death of millions of humans worldwide. Why are some microbes good and others bad? How can studying them benefit society and the world around us? Over the next 3 weeks, you will learn about the amazing complexity of microorganisms.

Skip to 1 minute and 9 seconds You will learn how to make a difference by studying or researching microbiology and have a chance to contribute to solving some of the world’s most pressing issues. Come and join us, and meet some of the experts based here at the University of Reading. See some of the research going on in our labs and meet the next generation of microbiologists.


  • Week 1

    Meet the microbes

    • Welcome to the course

      Welcome! Meet Dr Glyn Barrett, your lead educator, and learn about the topics you'll be discussing over the next three weeks as you explore the hidden world of microbes.

    • Types of microbes

      Current estimates suggest there could be at least 1 billion different species of microbe on Earth, yet these can all be grouped into five major types. Explore each type in detail in these Steps.

    • How microbes function

      Most environments are inhabited by a community of different microbes, all competing to gain the nutrients they need for growth and reproduction. Find out how microbes function in this activity.

    • Where microbes live

      Microbes may be invisible to the naked eye, but they dominate every environment on Earth. In this activity you will discover how each species of microbe has adapted to live in a specific environment.

    • Microbe-host interactions

      Many microbes adapt to live in association with another organism, known as their host. In this activity you will explore the spectrum of microbe-host interactions.

    • Review and reflect

      This week you explored the characteristics of the five groups of microbes, how they function and where they live. Next week you'll examine the current methods microbiologists use to investigate this fascinating, hidden world.

  • Week 2

    Studying the hidden world

    • Microbiology discoveries

      Welcome to Week 2. Microbes live in every environment on Earth and advances in technology are helping us discover new species in previously inaccessible places. This week discover how microbiologists study the hidden world.

    • Microbiology techniques

      A single microbial sample contains many species of microbes with widely differing properties. Watch just a few of the techniques microbiologists use to study them in these lab demonstrations.

    • Interpreting results

      You've now seen a selection of the scientific techniques used to find and isolate microbes. In this activity, you'll turn to the methods used to interpret the results.

    • Your turn to analyse results

      Observation and record keeping skills are key for any microbiologist. Now it's your turn! In this activity, you'll perform and write-up an experiment using everyday items you can buy in a supermarket.

    • Review and reflect

      This week you explored the techniques microbiologists use and tested a hypothesis for yourself. Next week you'll discuss the impact microbes have on health, food and the environment.

  • Week 3

    For better or worse

    • Medical microbiology

      Pathogens are often in the news because of their devastating impact. Hear about the techniques used by microbiologists to identify the microbes which cause disease.

    • Treatment and prevention

      At some point in your life, you may have taken antibiotics to fight an infection, but do you really know how they work? Find out and hear from our medical microbiologists about their research into specific pathogens.

    • Food microbiology

      Using the correct cooking method, avoiding cross-contamination and keeping clean are all key priorities in the kitchen to safeguard your health. Explore the microbiology behind these food-related rules and try another experiment.

    • Environmental microbiology

      Microbes live in every environment on Earth from volcanoes, caves and oceans, to glaciers and us. But microbes also have an impact on key global processes. What roles do microbes play within the carbon and nitrogen cycles?

    • Microbes and biotechnology

      Microbes are often seen to have a negative impact on the way we live, but we can also take advantage of microbes to improve our lives. In this activity, you will look at the ways microbes are used in research and biotechnology.

    • Review and reflect

      Thank you for joining us on this University of Reading course. Now you’ve reached the end, let’s reflect together and think about the next steps you may like to take.

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and learn at your own pace. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

  • Available now

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Describe the key differences between the five groups of microbe.
  • Explain how microbes replicate and why environmental conditions affect where they live.
  • Differentiate between beneficial and harmful effects of microbes.
  • Discuss ways that microbiology research has, and will continue to, benefit human health, food production and the environment.
  • Explain how microbes evolve and discuss the potential implications of this on the future health of the population and our planet.
  • Conduct simple microbiology experiments and analyse the results in order to draw conclusions.

Who is the course for?

This course is for anyone interested in microbiology. There should be something for everyone – whether you are coming to the course with a fair amount of previous knowledge, or none at all. There will be plenty of help available for those who are completely new to the subject. The course will be of particular interest to those who are studying biology at school or considering applying to a microbiology degree.

Who will you learn with?

I am a research and teaching fellow at University of Reading. My research interests include microbial ecology, marine biology and wildlife conservation. I enjoy rock-climbing, diving and photography.

Who developed the course?

University of Reading

The University of Reading has a reputation for excellence in teaching, research and enterprise.

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