Tag: bacillus thuringiensis
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”.
Last night I finished a book on the submarine the USS Scorpion and was struck by how busy naval ships are when they return to their home ports. Rather than the boats sitting idle while the crew gets some R&R, it is a time when systems are tested, problems are fixed, and improvements are made. With the close of the spring semester and the onset of summer, we find our BIMS program returning from a year “at sea” where the courses and techniques and facilities have been operating to conduct our “mission” – teaching BIMS majors. Now with the conclusion of the year, we are back in “home port” doing the same program tests, fixes, and upgrades submariners do before we take our program back out to sea next fall. We find ourselves taking stock of what worked, what didn’t, and what comes next…
- We were pleased with the direction taken in BIMS 1300 Introduction to Scientific Research. The focus on learning the basics of how science is conducted, how to critically analyze the world around us, and how to apply the skills of science and analysis to better understand our world was a positive development this year.
- We were pleased with the functionality of the new spaces for teaching and research that came online in November. The micro lab was used by three different lab/lecture classes without any trainwrecks. The student project spaces gave us flexible space to support student work outside of regular hours that functioned flawlessly. Student card access to the labs was appreciated by students and allowed some previously impossible activities (round-the-clock monitoring of growth) to take place. New equipment in the student research labs and teaching labs gave new approaches for studying lab problems.
- We were pleased with the new Genetics course taught by Dr. Brosius. As a more balanced mixture of Mendelian, population, and molecular genetics, it gave an exceptional foundation for students ready to delve deeper in Molecular Cell Biology classes next year.
- We were pleased with the transition to a new schedule for offering BIMS courses in the freshman sequence. Next year, our new sequence will be fully operational.
What didn’t work.
- We found the positioning of some pieces of equipment in our new spaces to be less than ideal. For instance, a large rack for placement of backpacks and student materials went unused and students continued to put those things on the floor of the lab. Incubators were crowded together making access by students from two classes meeting simultaneously very difficult. After “living in the spaces” for a full semester, we will “rearrange some of the furniture” this summer.
- We found less success in Advanced Micro and capstones than was hoped. We realized halfway through the semester that student ownership of the projects was necessary in order to move them toward self-sufficiency and greater investment in getting results, and so we made adjustments to that effect. Still, at the end we realized there were other steps we could have taken to improve the experience and the productivity.
- A hiring freeze undermined our efforts to fill the vacant molecular biologist position that has hamstrung us during the year. We are unable to deliver our complete BIMS program without that person, and so we found ourselves scrambling to substitute courses to allow students to graduate. The result was for those graduates a fine degree but in some ways lacking of all the breadth and depth BIMS should have.
- BIMS faculty are spending May taking stock of what worked and what didn’t with the intention to refine our efforts to improve our program. This annual review and planning insures we don’t continue doing the same things in the same ways out of habit or because it is easy.
- Even in the midst of a hiring freeze, we have secured the services of McM alumna Sheena Banks to teach molecular courses for us as an adjunct. Sheena received her MS in Immunology from UTMB and is working as a Research Associate at the TTUHSC School of Pharmacy. This should help us bring a major portion of the molecular dimension of the BIMS program back online.
- We will continue to experiment with courses and their delivery next year. For instance, the BIOL 1301 Unicellular Organisms course and BIMS 1101 Uni Lab will receive a major overhaul next year to help strengthen areas in student learning that our testing of junior and senior BIMS students has revealed. Also, the BIMS 4491 Advanced Micro course for the fall will focus on spore ecology and physiology, and will meet in two hour blocks three times weekly. Students will see how different compositions of growth media influence the size and resistance of Bacillus thuringiensis endospores. Our expectation is that this work will result in presentation at the spring meeting of the Texas Branch of the American Society for Microbiology and subsequent publication.
All this is to say the BIMS program is not static, is never satisfied. While for many on campus the summer represents a time of rest, for us it is a very busy time. We want our program to be the best it can be – battle-ready and tested, improved – when we set sail again next fall to accomplish our mission to give BIMS majors the very best knowledge and skills and experiences possible.
This week, Dr. Heidi DiFrancesca’s Genetics students are testing foods for the presence of foreign DNA to determine whether they are “all natural” or have been genetically engineered. Genetically-modified foods (GMFs) include those that contain corn or other plant products that have been improved through introduction of genes from other species. Presence of such foreign genes in foodstuffs is detected using the same tools that allow federal agencies to see whether the plant’s genome has been modified genetically - molecular methods for cloning and DNA manipulation.
One frequently-encountered genetically-modified crop is corn, where the delta-endotoxin gene from Bacillus thuringiensis is introduced to the genome to enable the plant’s production of the toxin to kill a variety of insects that can ruin the crop. The toxin is harmless to people and other vertebrates – in fact, it is harmless to all but a small collection of insect pests. We could eat the toxin by the handful without effect, but for those susceptible insects one bite means certain death. You may recall the uproar in recent years over GMO/GMF (genetically-modified organisms/genetically-modified foods) and the European bans that resulted, or the threat to monarch butterfly populations some believed to be posed by fields of genetically-modified plants expressing the toxin. The methods and materials to be used in Dr. D’s class were developed by industry to allow for screening of foods for presence of the delta-endotoxin gene.
Students will take common foodstuffs containing corn – perhaps corn chips, perhaps corn tortillas (this is Texas, after all!) – and extract the DNA contained within. Then, using molecular probes for the delta-endotoxin gene sequence they will look for its presence in the DNA recovered. More likely than not, someone’s corn-based product will have the target sequence because it has been genetically modified to improve yield.
Bottom line is our students are learning valuable skills that are used by industry professionals to address real-world concerns. Not a bad week’s work for McMurry’s biomedical science students!