Freshmen Lead the Search For a New Antibiotic

Dec 13, 2013

by Cary McMullen | Publications Editor
In a biology laboratory in the Polk County Science Building, about 25 freshmen are testing samples of bacterial cultures to determine the structure of their cells. It’s an early phase of a research project that might someday yield a new antibiotic.
Fighting drug-resistant bacteria is a serious medical issue, and biological researchers are trying to address it by looking for the next generation of antibiotics. Despite the potential impact of such a discovery, the experiments to cultivate and test such compounds are basic and a good introductory exercise for budding researchers.
Thanks to the efforts of Assistant Professor of Biology Brittany Gasper, FSC was invited to join the Small World Initiative, a consortium of 24 institutions in partnership with The Center for Scientific Teaching at Yale University, which teaches students the principles of introductory biology by engaging them in a research project that examines antibiotic-producing microbes obtained from ordinary soil.
According to the website of the Small World Initiative, the development of new antibiotics has slowed because pharmaceutical companies have shifted research away from infectious disease and toward more lucrative drugs for chronic conditions, leading to a shrinking arsenal of effective antibiotics. The initiative connects this crisis to undergraduate research and education.
“The students isolate microorganisms that produce compounds with antibiotic properties,” said FSC Professor of Biology Nancy Morvillo. “The hope is that they will find a promising candidate and pass it on to a biotech company. It just shows that you don’t have to be a high-tech university to do this research. It can be done in any laboratory.”
In FSC’s Biology 1500 lab class, students collected soil samples from around campus and placed them in different media to see what bacteria would grow. The students then took samples of the bacteria and tested them to see if they produce substances that would kill other bacteria.
Of almost two dozen soil samples, 18 bacterial cultures indicated some antibacterial properties. The next step for students will be to try to isolate the compounds being produced. Eventually, the bacteria that are producing the compounds will be sent to a Yale laboratory for DNA sequencing.
“Dr. Morvillo and Dr. Gasper had strong feelings that we would find some antibiotic compounds,” said Christina Casella, a freshman biology major from Orlando. “It’s possible some of them could be used as medicine someday. I’m very excited!”
Casella said the experiments to cultivate and identify the specimens demonstrated the rigor and precision required in biological science.
“I’m learning a lot about how to perform experiments – the procedures, the need to avoid contamination, how to document the results,” she said. “I think it’s amazing. I’m so happy to be part of this study. It has completely broadened my knowledge about antibiotics. It makes me want to continue to participate in it.”
That kind of excitement is exactly what professors and administrators hope for – an engagement that will lead to more productive learning and better preparation for postgraduate study and careers.
“It does wonders for students. They do better in later courses. It gives them a purpose for learning instead of what goes on in standard lab courses,” Gasper said. “It helps them take ownership of the lab work. It’s their bacteria. They grew it.”
Morvillo said she is happy with the results so far.
“We are definitely expanding this program next year,” she said.