Tag: Winogradsky column


by gwilson on Nov.21, 2015, under A Day in the Life...

DSCN3124We believe strongly in our approach to research at McMurry.  We see research as not being the “other” thing professors do after they have completed their teaching for the week; we see research as a great teaching tool for the average student.  For instance, in Microbiology this semester the final project students are doing is determining whether their cell phones put out sufficient radiation to mutate the Staphylococci they isolated and identified from their bathrooms during project two.  By doing this, they are learning literature searches, experimental design, development of antibiotic resistance by bacteria through random mutations (or in this case radiation-induced mutations), and scientific writing.  All good skills we would have expected from our capstone students (well, the mutagenesis probably would’ve been some other investigation).  Here, they are doing these things as sophomores.  Similar approaches to research as a teaching tool are seen in many other BIMS courses, starting with their yeast fermentation experiments in their first semester General Biology I course.

But beyond research in regular lab courses, we also expect every student to have a capstone project involving research or internship.  Research project currently in progress include the following:

  • Studying the metagenomics of populations arising in Winogradsky columns vs. those of populations arising in Benoit columns (our Dr. Benoit has developed an alternative formulation for Winogradsky columns that uses diatomaceous earth instead of actual water source sediment as the basis for the solid phase of the column – see prior posts for more on this!).  We are determining whether the Benoit column develops similar population profiles as those arising using actual sediment.
  • Studying the presence of Coronaviruses in bat populations.  Bat guano is collected and screened using genomic tools.  Methodology began with samples recovered from museum specimens and has progressed to catching bats in the field and obtaining fresh samples.
  • Studying the genomics of moles from museums around the nation to determine the biogeography and distribution of unique populations.  Discovery of the westernmost specimens in Texas by one of our professors has led to this study to figure out which eastern population was the source so that a migration map can be constructed.
  • Recovery of antimicrobial and anti-cancer chemicals from regional plants.  Samples are obtained, studied chemically and physiologically for antibacterial properties on the McMurry campus.  Collaborations between our faculty and those at other universities (University of San Francisco, Baylor University, and University of Pennsylvania) allow more advanced chemical analysis and anti-cancer screening assays.
  • Studying the migration of crabs from coastal areas to inland lakes in Texas.  Lots of time is spent sampling regional lakes for the presence of these invasive species to determine routes and methods they use for finding new freshwater habitats.  A parallel study to this is the attempt to breed the crabs in captivity, something that has never been successfully done.

Is this it?  Is this all our students have to choose from?  Nope.  This is simply the projects currently underway.  We hope others will join our Research Teams and find their own, unique project from these and other options available at McMurry

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Improving the aim of fungi

by gwilson on Oct.01, 2015, under A Day in the Life..., Projects

dung_cannonIn BIMS, we believe a student “gets it” more quickly when the topics covered in lab are intertwined and connected – not when they follow the disjointed and unrelated approach seen at most colleges and universities.  For that reason, we are teaching our Gen Bio I lab through student participation in four major projects.  We believe we can give students a good look at the various topics central a first semester freshman biology course through Winogradsky columns (their “pets”), experiments with the fungus Pilobolus, photosynthesis with alginate balls containing the alga Chlorella, and fermentation experiments using the yeast Saccharomyces.

Pilobolus is a fungus that grows on the dung of herbivorous animals.  It is sometimes called the “shotgun fungus” or “dung cannon” because of its means for dispersing spores.  Its life cycle includes production of spores that shoot out from the fungal colony to land on nearby grasses.  When a herbivore eats those grasses, the fungus germinates and grows in the animal waste where it produces more spores to shoot out and start the cycle over again.  The key to success for the fungus is a light-sensitive structure that helps aim the spores away from surrounding dung toward an open area where new grass can be found.

The question our students have been asked to determine is whether it is possible to improve the accuracy of the fungus by natural selection.  Cultures are grown in a closed container with a hole provided for light to pass through.  Our students are placing sterile coverslips over the holes to catch any spores that are accurately shot at the light.  Those inaccurate spores hit and stick to the other parts of the container.  So each group will create one of these chambers and after two weeks will take photos of the inside of the chamber to document where spores hit (the scatter pattern).  Then, the cover slips are removed and used to inoculate new plates of media.  The experiment is repeated with new chambers to see if spore accuracy is improved by using spores that were accurate the first time.  If the spores hitting the coverslip give rise to fungal colonies with more accurate spores, the scatter pattern for the second test should be much smaller and more concentrated than before.

What are we learning?  Phototropism, some mycology, cell biology, cultivation techniques, experimental design, data analysis, and much more.  Will this work?  We’ll let you know in a few weeks!

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New Semester, New Start

by gwilson on Aug.28, 2015, under Program

IMG_0362The start of the Fall Semester and the 2015-16 school year brings with it a new start in the biology programs at McMurry. New Biomedical Science majors join those from Biology and Life Sciences in taking the new Biology Core – common classes that insure a common experience covering the breadth of biology.  This fall, the first new course is being taught – General Biology I – and its follow-up (ingeniously called General Biology II) will follow in the spring.

Lots of schools have a similar two-semester freshman biology sequence.  Like many, ours is cells, processes and genetics in the first and multicellular organisms, diversity of life and ecology in the second.  However, we hope that the lab for General Biology I will set our program apart from most.  The lab, designed by Dr. Benoit, is based on a few “canned” labs interspersed among several multi-week projects covering key concepts and teaching skills central to future biology courses.  There will be a project creating and studying Winogradsky columns that will emphasize metabolism and nutrient cycling and ecological succession.  Another will use yeast to demonstrate carbon dioxide generation in fermentation and alginate beads to follow its consumption in photosynthesis.  A third will require groups of students to design experiments with yeast to study fermentation changes with variations in substrates or environmental conditions.  And mitosis and meiosis will be followed using yeast mating experiments.  Not exactly an approach taken by most colleges for teaching first semester college students.  Our intent is to give them an engaging course unlike anything taken before, one that teaches principles and how science is done and provides experience putting skills learned into action to provide answers to biological questions.

We should be posting stories from this course here and on our Facebook page ( during the semester.  Hope you will follow our journey!

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