Senior BIMS major Luke Burcham has a fascination with fermentation. As an amateur brewmaster, his interest in the physiology of yeast fermentation has resulted in his choice for “life after McMurry”. He will be entering a graduate program at UC-Davis in January to study all things related to fermentation and brewing. From Borger TX to Davis CA is quite a move, but Luke is ready for the adventure.
With that in mind, Luke worked with Dr. Tom Benoit this semester to design a project that would give him a head-start on his graduate studies. After Luke reviewed some literature on the subject, he began to envision a project to investigate the impact of modifying the ion content of the growth medium for beer production to determine the best formulation. The experimental design began with a question on how calcium levels in the water used for the process might influence the physiology of the yeast in the batch. Could it be that increasing calcium ion content altered the growth characteristics of the yeast and alcohol content of the product? Would hard water result in a fundamentally different product than that produced in soft or distilled water?
Notes from research meetings and designs for experiments decorate the white board in the senior research lab (shown above). The final design Dr. Benoit and Luke settled on centered on using production of cell clumps and measurement of alcohol content as ways of monitoring physiological differences between batches. As yeast grow in a broth culture, they can form clumps of cells that fall out of suspension as nutrients are exhausted and the growth period comes to a close. This flocculation of yeast cells and cell debris is a necessary step to move from the cloudy active culture to a clear final (and commercially appealing) product. Could calcium concentration alter the dynamics of growth and flocculation?
After completing a variety of experiments this spring, the answer seems to be “yes”. Luke tells me that batches made with distilled/RO water averaged clumps of 17 cells (as measured microscopically using a hemacytometer), while batches made with added calcium chloride averaged clumps of 55 cells. In addition to having larger clumps, calcium enriched batches also produced less alcohol (as measured using a hydrometer). Luke is currently in the analysis process – explaining why clumps are larger and why larger clumps mean less alcohol produced – as he takes these findings and turns them into the final project poster for his capstone experience.
Luke’s project is a great example of the flexibility we provide our students to pursue senior projects in line with their interests and future plans. Luke’s future seems destined to be quite different from the one envisioned when he began his college life as a Biomedical Science major intent on dental school. However, the knowledge and skills and abilities gained in the BIMS program have application to his future and have equipped him well to succeed in his graduate work at UC-Davis.
For the past decade, one of the most popular television franchises has been CSI, where the tools of forensic science are used to solve crime. The BIMS program was created to provide students with the knowledge and skills needed to join their TV counterparts to help bring criminals to justice.
But forensic science is MUCH more than DNA fingerprinting and other biotech and immunological methods. Sometimes, the key evidence is provided by six-legged pests. This semester, upper level students in Dr. Tierney Brosius’ Entomology class and two capstone students are joining scientists from universities across the country in a project being directed by the University of Nebraska to study chemical attractants that draw flies to decaying flesh and to see what species are most commonly attracted by which chemical.
To do their work, students will create bait traps containing suspect chemicals and scatter them around campus. Then, over the course of many days the flies attracted will be counted and identified to search for patterns and answers. Results will be added to those from students from other schools to see whether there are regional differences in effective chemicals and in species attracted.
More than anything, such studies provide students with valuable experience participating in the industry of science. But another benefit is the realization that the glamour and simplicity of television science and technology come about through long, hard work done by dedicated researchers.
Every year the BIMS faculty sits down and discusses what research they might pursue for the sake of teaching and capstone projects. With the start of school only a week away, we have narrowed our focus to a couple of very promising avenues for student research. We thought you might like to know what’s made it to the top of our list for possible projects…
1. Bioactive compounds in the environment. Last year we began work to gear up use of the yeast estrogen screening (YES) assay to test soils and waters for the presence of estrogen-mimic compounds. Such compounds have been implicated in estrogen-fueled cancers, early onset of puberty, and other such health issues. Our early discussions this year have included involvement of Biochemistry in the use of the screen for testing area ground water and soils while Biology capstone students (BIMS 4201) may pursue use of biofermenters to produce mixed populations of microbes capable of destroying the chemicals. So, using our resources to identify the problem and find solutions. I like that!
2. Spore physiology and ecology. During my doctoral research, I made some discoveries that have gone unreported and have not been pursued since. My work was on Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacterium of economic importance because of the insecticidal crystal protein produced when it forms spores. Unlike the rest of the Bt world at the time, my interest was not in the crystal but in the biology of the spore. A part of that work involved studying, essentially, how diet influenced spore properties. I found those spores created in high sugar environments were larger and more resistant to heat, UV, and harsh chemicals, and germinated differently than did spores created in low sugar environments. I am teaching an Advanced Microbiology course (BIMS 4491) this fall where the students will resume the research with our goal to present results at the Texas Branch ASM meetings in March and to publish our results before the end of the year. Students leaving McMurry with presentations and publications is a good thing! Because the work is so expansive and offers so many opportunities for students to jump on-board, other students doing capstones may also find a piece of this puzzle they want to pursue. This research teaches some great basic biology and microbiology and has tremendous biomedical importance – after all, Bt is the simulant used for research on anthrax!
Some might look at the type of work our students pursue at McMurry and determine that the research done here is not as “cutting edge” and sophisticated as that done at large universities. Rightly so, and without apologies! Our intent is not to invite undergraduates to wash dishes or “piddle around” on the fringes of our research, but to be the main contributors to our work – much as graduate students are at those large universities. Every student is exposed to research here, and they are integral to our progress – not footnotes to graduate students’ success! Their work is the main course, the entree and not the parsley and onion soup. The fact of the matter is there are always plenty of questions of interest and importance to be answered that are left behind as the juggernaut of big science crashes forward. We will gladly fill in the blanks left behind as they rush onward. Such questions provide a fertile ground for learning and discovery. We are student-centered in our teaching and in our research. BIMS at McMurry is simply “science done better”.