Tag: Tom Benoit
In BIMS 1101 Unicellular Organisms Lab, Dr. Benoit takes students through an amazing tour of the unseen world, one filled with bacteria and protozoa and algae and yeast. The course teaches basic cell biology and the diversity that exists among the smallest forms of life. As a way of demonstrating the metabolic diversity of bacteria, all students create Winogradsky columns by filling Falcon flasks with diatomaceous earth, a variety of chemicals, and some water drawn from pond sludge (see photo). These are the students’ pets, cared for and tended to by the students. Dr. B encourages students to drop by the lab regularly to visit their pets and to enjoy their journey to maturation. At the end of the semester, students are free to take them home where they can continue to mature and change for many years.
The preparation begins white usually, but chemical changes caused by a variety of bacterial turn the many minerals present into a technicolor show. A good balance of chemicals and diversity of bacteria can result in reds and greens and blacks and yellows and purples as one species of bacteria after another transforms the minerals into colorful compounds. It is the microbial equivalent of a garden filled with diverse plants.
As educational as the Winogradsky column is, the fun take on the project by Dr. Benoit demonstrates an important component of science at McMurry – if it isn’t fun, something is wrong!
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.
This Friday, the faculty of the Biomedical Science Program will meet for a retreat to discuss our first year of operation and plan for the year ahead. Attending will be Tom Benoit, Heidi DiFrancesca, and Gary Wilson from Biology, Paul Pyenta from Chemistry & Biochemistry, and Alicia Wyatt from Computer Science. Larry Sharp is on vacation and will miss the meeting.
In reviewing the first year of operation, many milestones suggest a rich and profitable future for the program. The first year saw over 20 students declare a BIMS major, mostly incoming freshmen interested in health professions or biotech. The new courses were very well populated. Growing publicity from the city fathers, The Development Corporation of Abilene, the TTU School of Pharmacy, and local biotech firm Receptor Logic helped to strengthen our position as the premiere life science/biotech training program in Abilene. Heidi DiFrancesca and Hyunshun Shin from Chemistry & Biochemistry have begun collaborating on a project to develop and test new treatments for breast cancer. And McMurry has seen the value in promoting these endeavors through funding for equipment and supplies to support the research-in-teaching approach used in BIMS.
I’m sure some time will be spent discussing the parallel development of the biotech infrastructure in Abilene, with a variety of support facilities (including the Abilene Life Sciences Foundation Research Accelerator facility) coming on line. Add to this the decision by Abilene Independent School District to start a new engineering/computer science high school this fall and you have converging efforts that point to a bright future. One of the tracks possible at the new high school is biotech engineering, which Dr. Jon Weidanz from TTUHSC-School of Pharmacy and I are promoting.
So what does the future hold? That is the reason for our retreat! I expect that we’ll see growing commitments to link our courses together and use our BIMS lab courses to conduct research. We’ll see BIMS-focused proposals for the lab renovation competition being held on campus later this month. We’ll see plans for research grants and programs to help high school science teachers learn and implement new methods, techniques, and equipment into their courses. We’ll see more articulation agreements with professional schools for pharmacy, physical therapy, and who knows what else! Clearly, BIMS is on the move and possesses the creative firepower to transform the sciences at McMurry. Thoughtful planning and staged implementation are keys to making that happen.
Check back in a few weeks as I give an update on the event!