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”.
The horrible disaster in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the explosion and sinking of the BP oil platform is all over the news. Devastation to the landscape and wildlife all along the Gulf Coast is sure to be a topic of discussion for months and years to come. Lawsuits will be in the headlines, and government finger-pointing is going to part of coming elections. How could such a thing happen? How can such pervasive damage be repaired?
News videos for the past two weeks have shown use of booms, human hair, and chemical dispersants to try to minimize the amount of oil reaching shore. However, little has been said about the use of microbes to help digest the oil and remove it from the water and shoreline. One amazing fact about microbes is that when it comes to the versatility of their metabolism and their physiological capabilities, there are few organic chemicals that one or another critter can’t break down. Oil included. For example, the Exxon Valdez mess was cleaned up in part using oil-eating bacteria.
You might say – “Getting rid of oil coating the shoreline and contaminating the environment? There’s an app for that!”
Both of McMurry’s microbiologists, Drs. Tom Benoit and Gary Wilson, have experience in the use of microbes to remove oil and other hydrocarbons from contaminated soil and water. Benoit has extensive involvement in reducing hydrocarbon contaminants from water. In fact, he helped design a facility for the City of Nacogdoches (TX) that removes such pollutants from wastewater entering its sewage treatment facility. It uses microbes to destroy harmful chemicals that would choke the sewage treatment plant and slow return of treated wastewater to the environment. Wilson worked with a local electricity provider to help reduce the hydrocarbon counts in contaminated soil by more than 90% to significantly reduce the cost of disposal. In both instances, encouraging the growth of harmless microbes that devour oil and other organic compounds in the water and soil helped protect the environment. Chances are, students in BIMS courses this fall will find themselves doing research to try to maximize the effectiveness of similar organisms in eliminating crude oil-based pollution.
You may not be able to download the magic microbes as an app for your iPhone, but microbiology provides an answer to some of life’s trickiest problems.