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Answers in the earth?

Honors biology students analyze campus soil as part of international search for new, effective antibiotics.

October 18, 2018

MSMU science scholars Vanessa Benitez and Charlotte Davis present their antibiotics research at the 2018 Tiny Earth Symposium, in Madison, Wisc.
MSMU science scholars Vanessa Benitez and Charlotte Davis present their antibiotics research at the 2018 Tiny Earth Symposium, in Madison, Wisc.

If you see students sifting through the soil in the garden behind Rossiter Hall, or in the flowerbeds along the southern staircase leading to Coe Memorial Library, that’s not gardening in action. You’re witnessing field research that’s digging a little deeper — an ambitious search for bacteria that could yield new, effective antibiotics that are urgently needed to treat illness and infections. 

The project — led on campus by Stacey Peterson, PhD, professor of biological sciences at Mount Saint Mary’s University — enables students from a research-based honors biology lab to learn how to isolate and analyze antibiotic-producing bacteria. This is important work because the world’s antibiotic supply is proving less effective as infections such as pneumonia, tuberculosis and salmonellosis become more resistant to older antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance occurs naturally, but it has accelerated rapidly worldwide due to the misuse and overuse of antibiotics, as well as poor infection prevention and control measures. The World Health Organization has identified antibiotic resistance as “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development today.”

Six years ago, a Yale University professor had the idea that students could help the scientific community’s search for new effective antibiotics. Her idea became the seed for Tiny Earth, an international network of instructors and students who are “student-sourcing antibiotic discovery.” The program is now headquartered at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Peterson is a trained Tiny Earth instructor and her students at the Mount are now among nearly 10,000 students participating in this research annually, across 41 U.S. states and 14 countries.

The idea is that a diversity of student scientists from a diversity of climates, soils and locations will increase the sharing of valuable knowledge, as well as the odds of successful discoveries.

“This is an incredible chance for our students to learn scientific research methods and perhaps even be part of a breakthrough discovery that leads to the creation of a new clinical antibiotic,” says Peterson, a partner instructor in the Tiny Earth network. “This is also an invaluable learning opportunity for our first-year students to gain research skills and present their research to a larger community of scientists and biotech leaders.”  

Indeed, this past summer eight biology students from the first-year honors lab attended the 2018 Tiny Earth Symposium in Madison, Wisc., to present their research findings from the previous academic year.

“It was quite a rush going to a big, out-of-state conference to present research findings that we conducted right here at the Mount,” says Cynthia Flores ’21, a biology major. “It really does open you to a wide scope of people who are invested in the same topics as you are. It’s a great way to get involved in the broader scientific community, and gives you a platform to state your findings and projections.”

First, though, comes the research itself. Students in Peterson’s honors biology lab examine the soil, isolate any antibiotic-producing bacteria they find, and test to see if their isolates have the ability to inhibit bacteria growth. Students then grow and prep the most promising cells, sequence their ribosomal RNA genes to identify them, and send samples to Tiny Earth’s headquarters for further testing. 

Esmeralda Carrera '21 works some some of her soil samples in the lab.
Esmeralda Carrera '21 works some some of her soil samples in the lab.

“It’s incredible that I now know how to sequence part of a gene from this work,” says Esmeralda Carrera ’20, a biochemistry major. “The experience I’ve gained is so helpful to have at this point. Later on, when I’m doing additional research, it will help to already know a lot of the lab procedures and skills.”

This research could impact the work of many other disciplines, including nursing, health policy and political science. Mount alums who now serve as nurses, doctors and policymakers know that antibiotic resistance leads to longer hospital stays, higher medical costs and increased mortality, affecting public health and communities worldwide.

Generating more interest and research in this area of focus is exactly what Peterson, Mount Saint Mary’s and the Tiny Earth network has in mind.

“Here at the Mount, our hope is that by giving students more real-world research experience in the lab and in the field — at such an early stage in their studies — will encourage more young women to pursue careers in science,” Peterson says.

So far, it seems to be working. Carrera and Flores both have aspirations to stay in the sciences. Carrera wants to study medicine and perhaps focus on research. Flores hopes to go to medical school, with plans of becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon.

“This class taught me a lot,” Flores says. “This whole experience has given me a new set of lab skills, as well as presentation skills that I plan to bring with me to the next symposiums I attend. Out of everything, though, I think the most important thing I took from this lab was the awareness and attention to tiny details and, of course, to the importance of tiny organisms!”

The team of Mount science students who presented their antibiotics research at the 2018 Tiny Earth Symposium this summer, in Madison, Wisc.
The team of Mount science students who presented their antibiotics research at the 2018 Tiny Earth Symposium this summer, in Madison, Wisc.