Improving the aim of fungi

by gwilson on Oct.01, 2015, under A Day in the Life..., Projects

dung_cannonIn BIMS, we believe a student “gets it” more quickly when the topics covered in lab are intertwined and connected – not when they follow the disjointed and unrelated approach seen at most colleges and universities.  For that reason, we are teaching our Gen Bio I lab through student participation in four major projects.  We believe we can give students a good look at the various topics central a first semester freshman biology course through Winogradsky columns (their “pets”), experiments with the fungus Pilobolus, photosynthesis with alginate balls containing the alga Chlorella, and fermentation experiments using the yeast Saccharomyces.

Pilobolus is a fungus that grows on the dung of herbivorous animals.  It is sometimes called the “shotgun fungus” or “dung cannon” because of its means for dispersing spores.  Its life cycle includes production of spores that shoot out from the fungal colony to land on nearby grasses.  When a herbivore eats those grasses, the fungus germinates and grows in the animal waste where it produces more spores to shoot out and start the cycle over again.  The key to success for the fungus is a light-sensitive structure that helps aim the spores away from surrounding dung toward an open area where new grass can be found.

The question our students have been asked to determine is whether it is possible to improve the accuracy of the fungus by natural selection.  Cultures are grown in a closed container with a hole provided for light to pass through.  Our students are placing sterile coverslips over the holes to catch any spores that are accurately shot at the light.  Those inaccurate spores hit and stick to the other parts of the container.  So each group will create one of these chambers and after two weeks will take photos of the inside of the chamber to document where spores hit (the scatter pattern).  Then, the cover slips are removed and used to inoculate new plates of media.  The experiment is repeated with new chambers to see if spore accuracy is improved by using spores that were accurate the first time.  If the spores hitting the coverslip give rise to fungal colonies with more accurate spores, the scatter pattern for the second test should be much smaller and more concentrated than before.

What are we learning?  Phototropism, some mycology, cell biology, cultivation techniques, experimental design, data analysis, and much more.  Will this work?  We’ll let you know in a few weeks!

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New Semester, New Start

by gwilson on Aug.28, 2015, under Program

IMG_0362The start of the Fall Semester and the 2015-16 school year brings with it a new start in the biology programs at McMurry. New Biomedical Science majors join those from Biology and Life Sciences in taking the new Biology Core – common classes that insure a common experience covering the breadth of biology.  This fall, the first new course is being taught – General Biology I – and its follow-up (ingeniously called General Biology II) will follow in the spring.

Lots of schools have a similar two-semester freshman biology sequence.  Like many, ours is cells, processes and genetics in the first and multicellular organisms, diversity of life and ecology in the second.  However, we hope that the lab for General Biology I will set our program apart from most.  The lab, designed by Dr. Benoit, is based on a few “canned” labs interspersed among several multi-week projects covering key concepts and teaching skills central to future biology courses.  There will be a project creating and studying Winogradsky columns that will emphasize metabolism and nutrient cycling and ecological succession.  Another will use yeast to demonstrate carbon dioxide generation in fermentation and alginate beads to follow its consumption in photosynthesis.  A third will require groups of students to design experiments with yeast to study fermentation changes with variations in substrates or environmental conditions.  And mitosis and meiosis will be followed using yeast mating experiments.  Not exactly an approach taken by most colleges for teaching first semester college students.  Our intent is to give them an engaging course unlike anything taken before, one that teaches principles and how science is done and provides experience putting skills learned into action to provide answers to biological questions.

We should be posting stories from this course here and on our Facebook page ( during the semester.  Hope you will follow our journey!

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Summer Activities…

by gwilson on Jul.17, 2015, under A Day in the Life...

two-girlsMay brings finals, graduation, and a lull in campus activity.  However, summer is anything but a quiet time in the Department of Biology.  Here are some of the things happening as we hit the mid-point of summer vacation.

1. SOAR registration.  It has been a very good summer for the BIMS program as we look at the number and quality of new students being added to our program.  Freshmen are being added as they register during the Summer Orientation and Registration (SOAR) activities.  Students from large cities and small towns are choosing to call McMurry their college home.  Among them are young men and women interested in a variety of medical fields, forensic science, and biomedical research.  Another SOAR is coming up at the end of the month, and the capacity has already been expanded to allow us to handle the growing interest being shown for McMurry’s science programs.

2. Faculty news.  Dr. Tom Benoit had an article published in the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education on a new formulation for creating Winogradsky columns (the “pets” our BIOL 1301 Unicellular Biology students regularly make).  This new approach has been adopted by teaching and research labs around the nation.  Dr. Dana Lee has a new research article in the Journal of Mammalogy.  Dr. Lee used molecular techniques to study the genomics of bats from a number of small colonies scattered among the Ozark Mountains of Oklahoma and Arkansas to determine the connectedness between the populations.  This summer, her husband was awarded his PhD from Oklahoma State University, meaning there are two PhDs in the home.  A third publication from our faculty is also coming.  Dr. Anna will have an article in this fall’s Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas.  It explores the geographical distribution and history of plants from southwest Texas.  Drs. Boyle and Brant have been working to get our new biological research station (Firebase Libby) ready for our students and courses.

3. Student news.  Kara Black, recent graduate, has received an invitation to join the incoming class at the UNT-HSC Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine in Ft. Worth.  This was her chosen program.  Three BIMS majors are working in research with the Department of Chemistry this summer.  They are being paid through the Welch Foundation Departmental Grant.  Greg Aiken, Dialfin Hammond, and Genna Hart are all working with Chemistry faculty on ongoing research projects.  Also, Sophie Southwell is this summer’s Beasley Research Fellowship recipient.  She is working with Dr. Lee on an interesting project using molecular tools to study the prevalence of coronaviruses in bats.

4. New programs.  We are ready to go on our new biology degree programs.  BS Biology, BS Biomedical Science, and BS Life Sciences all are new for 2015.  You can see the details by visiting Biology’s new and improved webpage.

Enjoy your summer and looking forward to seeing everyone in lat August!

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