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”.
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!