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.
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.
This course will require around 100 hours to complete.