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Module titleMicrobes
Module codeBIO1425
Academic year2020/1
Module staff

Dr Andrew Pye (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

The first three billion years of life on Earth belong to the microbes. Understanding microbes is necessary in understanding the evolution of all life on earth and the emergence of life itself. Microbes have gone on to shape biogeochemical processes that have had profound effects on global climate, allowing for the evolution of the more complex life we study on our planet today. Arguably the most recent billion years also belong to the microbes. Despite the emergence of plants and animals, even today the biomass of bacteria and archaea rivals that of plants and greatly exceeds that of animals. If all animals were removed overnight, an observer from space might not even notice, as the Earth’s biogeochemical processes continue with little more than minor perturbations.

Plants and animals themselves can contain many more microbial cells than host cells. They form complex symbiotic relationships that have evolved since the emergence of plants and animals. The rhizosphere in plants and the microbiomes of animals are essential for health. More profound, mitochondria and chloroplasts, key organelles in animals and plants, were once microbes, long since incorporated into the eukaryotic cell. Once we grasp this fact it becomes difficult to separate microbial life from more complex life on planet Earth.

This module will introduce you to microbes and their impact on planet Earth. One cannot understand life on earth without understanding the impact of microbes.

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module aims to illustrate the important and fascinating role microbes play on planet Earth.

The module will begin by exploring the origin of life on Earth, moving on to the last universal common ancestor (LUCA), before examining the very first branches on the tree of life. These early branches will include viruses, bacteria, archaea, algae, fungi, and ‘protists’. You will develop an understanding of the key characteristics of these broad microbe groups and how these microbes interact and shape their environment.

The beneficial interactions between microbes and more complex life will also be explored, such as in rumen, coral and lichen. We will also touch on some negative aspects of microbes; microbial disease (a subject you can study in more depth in the second year module BIO2423 Wildlife Disease).

Finally, the module will end by looking at the role microbes can play in tackling some of the major global environmental issues we face on planet Earth; such as the biological digestion of plastic waste, bioremediation, energy generation and even the future colonisation of new planets.

Practical classes will demonstrate key techniques for the study of microbes. You will get hands on experience observing microbial life. 

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Discuss key concepts in microbial ecology
  • 2. Think critically about these principles and how they relate to other modules
  • 3. Analyse the evidence for our current understanding of microbial life
  • 4. Give examples of the importance of microbial life on Earth

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 5. Describe essential facts and theory across a sub-discipline of the biosciences
  • 6. Identify critical questions from the literature and synthesise research-informed examples into written work
  • 7. Identify and implement, with some guidance, appropriate methodologies and theories for addressing a specific research problem in biosciences
  • 8. With guidance, deploy established techniques of analysis, practical investigation, and enquiry within biosciences
  • 9. Describe and begin to evaluate approaches to our understanding of biosciences with reference to primary literature, reviews and research articles

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 10. Develop, with guidance, a logical and reasoned argument with sound conclusions
  • 11. Collect and interpret appropriate data and undertake straightforward research tasks with guidance

Syllabus plan

Syllabus plan

Practical classes will introduce you to key techniques for studying microbes .

The main module content will be delivered through a mix of lectures, activites and discussion sessions (flipped classroom) where you will discuss recent research papers on the key themes identified below:

  • The origins of life:
    • LUCA and the microbial tree of life
  • The microbes:
    • Viruses, bacteria, archaea, algae, fungi, ‘protists’
  • The impact of microbes on their environment:
    • Soil/ plant interactions/ nitrogen cycle/ nutrient recycling.
    • Oceans / biomass and the carbon cycle.
    • Symbiosis: biofilms, rumen..
  • Microbial disease:
    • Understanding disease as a normal part of nature.
  • The role of microbes in tackling global challenges:
    • Extremophiles, biological digestion of plastic waste,
    • bioremediation, energy generation,

Learning and teaching

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled teaching and learning11Lectures (11 x 1 hour)
Scheduled teaching and learning16.5Discussion of current research papers/flipped class room (11 x 1.5 hours)
Scheduled teaching and learning9Practical classes
Scheduled teaching and learning3.5Online learning/discussion
Guided independent study110Readings and revision


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
In-class quizzes5 minutes 1-11Oral
Lab questions/write-up1 page1-11Oral in practical class

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
In-class MCQ examination4020 qs1-11MCQ mark
In-class MCQ examination6040 qs1-11MCQ mark


Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
In-class MCQ examinationIn-class MCQ examination1-11Ref/def exam period
In-class MCQ examinationIn-class MCQ examination1-11Ref/def exam period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss the examination for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will be deferred in the examination. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to sit a further examination. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of referral will count for 100% of the final mark and will be capped at 40%.


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Brock Biology of Microrganisms – available as eBOOK via module ELE page

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Module has an active ELE page

Key words search

Microbes, microbiology, environmental microbiology, microbial ecology

Credit value15
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date