Michael O’Hora

Benefits of fieldwork for microbiologists in a multinational setting

It was only when I was on the plane headed across the Atlantic to beautiful sunny Colombia that it dawned on me; this bioprospecting field trip was actually happening! I began to think of the people I’d be working with for two weeks, what would they be like, where would we go? What will the jungle be like? And when we touched down in Medellin, we were stunned by the incredible view that the valley city offered, and although it was very cloudy when we arrived, every single day we were captivated by the mountains on each side, with the cities buildings and skyscrapers scaling partway up the hillsides.

When we first met our fellow students from overseas, from the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth in the USA and students from both Universidad de Antioquia and Universidad de EAFIT in Colombia it was clear we would get on. Everyone was brilliant, each with a unique personality which meant close friendships quickly arose, crossing international borders even now, as I write this blog.

The purpose of this trip was bioprospecting, we were taking soil samples, and looking for any microbial species that might prove useful for agriculture. We were primarily looking for species that could demonstrate antifungal properties since the lab we were working in at Universidad de EAFIT was specialised in fungicide sprays for usage on Colombia’s vast banana plantations.

During the course we went on three field trips, with each of our six groups taking one set of soil samples on each trip. We went to three different types of tropical forest: the first, Arvi Park is a nature reserve 2500 meters above sea level which was described by the Colombians as cool and humid. At 18-22oC, we hardly called it cool; the second was Santa Fe, an agricultural centre close to the original capital of Colombia during Spanish colonialism. Santa Fe was swelteringly hot and dry; finally, the last stop was Uraba Field station, this was a proper tropical rainforest, requiring a small plane journey to take us to the rainforest sandwiched between the banana plantations.

The staff from each university gave their own presentations and seminars where we learned huge amounts on Colombian Biodiversity, how Ecosystems are classified, Bacterial Secondary Metabolites and much more. The discussions we had among our groups on the lecture content showed how different our educational backgrounds were in terms of practical knowledge, but also what course we took. This then meant we were able to compile our knowledge into more complex, fleshed out, answers taking account of all our individual responses. This difference in experience followed over into the labs, with each of the different university students being apt at different aspects of our plating and testing of the samples collected.

Sitting here now in Reading as I write up this blog post, I can say that the Colombia Bioprospecting field trip has been one of the singular best experiences of my life and something that I will remember for a long time.


Our sampling group following our first collection in Arvi Park.
Right to left; Susana Londoño, Michael O’Hora, Nora Cox, Edd Jones


An example of the Humid and Hot conditions in the jungle with the heavy leaf litter covering the floor