Student-assisted research may help to uncover natural antibiotic
Someday Megan Ferguson, assistant chemistry professor at New Paltz, hopes that her student-assisted research could greatly benefit the health of the world’s agricultural industry.
With the help of a three-year, $430,500 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and two other colleagues, Ferguson can now further her study of a bacterium that may lead to the development of a natural antibiotic that devours hard-to-destroy bacterial germs in communities called biofilms often found on the roots of plants.
The new grant, which is an extension of a previous $396,500 NSF grant for similar research, will fund 18 undergraduate researchers at New Paltz, Occidental College in L.A. and Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. Ferguson emphasized the importance of the grant’s undergraduate student research component.
“When I was an undergrad, I got a lot more out of a project when I could collect and interpret my own data,” she said. “Being able to give so many students the opportunity to do research is a real strength.”
The Bdellovibrio (literally, “curved leech”) bacterium can remove or weaken some biofilms and may in the future potentially lower or eliminate the need for chemical antibiotics to destroy these bacterial micro-colonies in industries such as agriculture and wastewater treatment.
Ferguson said this NSF grant will help professional and student researchers answer questions such as: How does bdellovibrio identify and communicate with its prey? What are the ideal chemical and physical environments for bdellovibrio on the hunt? What are the properties of biofilms that may be vulnerable to bdellovibrio?
Both Ferguson and Occidental chemistry professor and grant co-investigator Eileen Spain stressed the interdisciplinary nature of the project.
“We've attracted a wide variety of students and collaborators from different disciplines, such as environmental chemistry and biological chemistry,” said Spain. “With disciplinary breadth, we are making new discoveries on how this bacterium lives its life.”