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Science: microbes

This online course explores the intriguing world of bacteria, viruses, and other microscopic organisms – an empire of creatures that extends into every facet of human life and the environment. Science: microbes is one of a series of 100-hour flexible online courses introducing fascinating topics in science. It allows you to learn about this topic just for interest and enables you to try out a new area of study before you commit yourself to further study. You can register and begin this course at any time and will have at least 6 months to complete it.

Standalone study only

You will not be awarded credits for studying this course. It is available for standalone study only and cannot be counted towards an OU qualification.

Short course

Short course code
This is a non-credit bearing course.
Study method
Distance Learning
Short course cost
See Registration
Entry requirements
See Entry requirements

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What you will study

What have flu pandemics got to do with beer? Both involve microbes. Since the birth of civilisation humans have had an uneasy alliance with the microbial world. These microscopic organisms have brought us terrible afflictions such as Black Death, flu pandemics and food poisoning, but at the same time they ferment our wine, help our bread rise and work in the soil to enable our crops to grow.

This course provides an introduction to microbes, explaining their importance in disease and environmental issues and their role in making and spoiling food. You will learn how many microbes exist harmlessly on and in the human body with key beneficial roles, such as in the human digestive system, and how they can cause disease if this natural balance is disturbed. Microbes are used to manufacture the antibiotic drugs to treat these infections but bacteria can evolve to become resistant to such drugs, requiring continual scientific work to develop new antibiotics against these 'superbugs'.

Microbes play a major role in the environment, influencing climate and playing a vital part in recycling elements in the soil, the atmosphere and other natural systems. On a more mundane level, microbes are involved in making cheese and pickled foods, fermenting beer and producing a huge variety of other foods. Food spoilage is also caused by microbes and is a major problem for food distribution and preservation.

Microbes are the most ancient of life forms on the earth and have recently become a focus in the search for life on other planets. All these aspects will be covered in the course.

You will learn about: the biology of microbes and how they have been studied and cultured from historical times to the present; the efforts made to combat the negative effects of microbes in the health and food industries; how microbes are beneficially used to make drugs and food; the basic ideas behind genetic engineering; and some of the science behind the major environmental cycles in which microbes are involved. This will enable you to understand more about the role and importance of microbes in human society.

By the end of the course you will have developed a range of study skills associated with microbiology and its diverse practical uses from health to environment. You will be able to apply this knowledge to making your own assessments of the ways in which microbiology is reported in the media.

The course is based on specially written OU study materials, together with an online digital microscope which will allow you to explore the microbial world for yourself and develop a range of scientific and study skills, through a series of structured activities and questions. Other practical activities will enable you to do your own experiments. The study text and website will provide questions and answers and activities to help test your understanding, and that you can use for self-assessment throughout the course.

By the end of this course you should be able to:

  • Demonstrate general knowledge and understanding of some of the basic facts, concepts, principles and language relating to microbiology and its importance and applications in biological and health sciences, earth and environmental sciences, and planetary science.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the contribution that microbiology can make to informed debate on medical and environmental issues.
  • Make, record and interpret observations and simple measurements using a digital microscope.

The course features the distinctive strengths of The Open University (OU) from its years of expertise in distance learning:

  • The convenience of accessing its clearly presented and sequenced materials, activities and support whenever suits you and wherever you have access to the protected course website – if you prefer, you can print key materials to work on them offline.
  • The support of an expert learning adviser who can clarify study materials, answer questions and help you relate the course to your specific needs.
  • An online interactive quiz that you can attempt as many times as you wish to help you test your own learning.
  • A statement of participation from the OU which you can use to demonstrate your engagement with the course. (N.B. The course does not carry academic credit points.)

Some of the pages within the course may contain links to external sites. Accessing these sites is part of the allocated study time for the course. You may also wish to undertake additional background study or reading if some of the concepts introduced are completely unfamiliar to you.

Learner support

Expert, confidential learner support is available when you need it from a learning adviser, who will respond to you directly. Other support is available via the course forum, dedicated website and computing helpdesk.

Course length

This course will require around 100 hours to complete.

Teaching and assessment


There is no formal assessment on the course but you will be able to assess yourself on your factual knowledge through an online quiz that gives detailed feedback to help your learning.

Future availability

This page describes the course that opened in February 2020. You can register and start this course at any time up until 31 January 2021, and study at your own pace. This is the final year SG071 will be available for study.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the academic regulations, which are available on our Student Policies and Regulations website.

    Entry requirements

    This course is designed for people who are new to the subject area, and although a little knowledge of general science would be useful, you will need little more than an interest in microbes and the motivation to discover more about these fascinating organisms.

    You should be able to read and understand written English of a style and complexity characteristic of a professional magazine or quality newspaper. Mathematically you need only to be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide simple numbers.

    You can study at your own pace and attempt the online quiz at any time before the end date for the course. Information about the end date is available when you register and will be at least six months after registration.

    If you want to see if this material is suitable for you, try a sample of the study material

    Course length

    This course will require around 100 hours to complete.


    Start End England fee Register
    At anytime Flexible - see Entry requirements for more detail £170.00 Register

    Ways to pay

    Credit/Debit Card – We accept American Express, Mastercard, Visa and Visa Electron.

    Sponsorship – If this course is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could ask your employer to sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. Your sponsor just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.

    The fee information provided here is valid for short courses starting in the 2020/21 academic year. Fees for short courses starting in the 2021/22 academic year or later may increase in line with the University’s strategic approach to fees.

    What's included

    All learning materials, activities and study support are delivered entirely online.

    You will need

    Basic scientific calculator; access to some household items to conduct practical activities.

    Computing requirements

    A computing device with a browser and broadband internet access is required for this module. Any modern browser will be suitable for most computer activities. Functionality may be limited on mobile devices.

    Any additional software will be provided, or is generally freely available. However, some activities may have more specific requirements. For this reason, you will need to be able to install and run additional software on a device that meets the requirements below.

    A desktop or laptop computer with either an up-to-date version of Windows or macOS.

    The screen of the device must have a resolution of at least 1024 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically.

    To join in the spoken conversation in our online rooms we recommend a headset (headphones or earphones with an integrated microphone).

    Our Skills for OU study website has further information including computing skills for study, computer security, acquiring a computer and Microsoft software offers for students.

    If you have a disability

    The course is delivered online and makes use of a variety of online resources, including coloured images delivered via an online digital microscope. If you use specialist hardware or software to assist you in using a computer or the internet you are advised to contact us about support which can be given to meet your needs. If you are a new learner with the OU, make sure that you look at our website.