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MNU Student Conducts Intriguing Research on E. coli-Eating Bacteria

MNU biology major Steffani Burks is conducting innovative research under the direction of biology professor Dr. Rion Taylor. The senior from Marshfield, Mo. is studying the effect of different wavelengths (or colors) of light on a certain bacteria. The goal is to gain new understanding and eventually publish the findings for the scientific community and the public.

While all science majors at MNU take a course in research, Burks is part of a small, exclusive group of students who take their studies a step further. Working an average of 15 to 20 hours per week in the lab, the undergraduate biology research experience requires an investment of time and energy that Taylor says is uncommon.

“It requires a certain caliber of student,” Taylor says. “They have to be dedicated. But we think this is a great way to show them what will be expected once they are in graduate school.”

Burks is conducting research on Myxococcus xanthus, a common bacteria found in soil. Myxo, as it is called, is considered non-pathogenic (not harmful to humans).

“We study Myxo because it is safe for students, yet it has a lot of similarities to other bacteria,” Taylor says. “We call it a model organism which we study to learn things that can apply to harmful bacteria.”

According to Taylor, Myxo produces more natural antibiotics than any other bacteria, and thus has the potential for relevance to medical applications. It is harmful only to other bacteria, consuming E. coli, for example, as a nutrient.

In another application, the U.S. government is testing the usefulness of Myxo by spraying it on strawberries as a natural fungicide. Improved understanding of how this bacteria interacts may also have ramifications for anti-cancer medications. Key to building this understanding is engaging in research like Burks’ to uncover the basic mechanisms that impact Myxo’s behavior.

Taylor says the first step in conducting biological research is to examine existing studies. After a thorough review of the literature on previous Myxo research, Burks found that researchers proved the bacteria changes when exposed to wavelengths of blue light. These wavelengths slow its growth and change its color. She could not however, find any research on what Myxo does when exposed to other wavelengths. Interested in this gap in the research, she proposed the idea to Taylor who said the topic had merit.

Burks then embarked on original research at MNU by reconfirming the previous study with blue light. Then she conducted experiments to discover what happened to Myxo with red, black and ambient (white) light; using darkness for the control group since that is its normal environment.

“When exposed to red light Myxo changes color almost as remarkably as with the blue light,” Burks says.  “We can’t say for sure yet if the red light has caused a change in growth, but at this point it seems that it might be causing the Myxo to grow and move faster.” This observation runs opposite to the bacteria’s reaction to blue light, which presents an opportunity for new hypotheses.

“It may be that Myxo has adapted its physical response to light to a kind of rudimentary vision telling the colony to expand faster to escape the light,” Taylor says.

The non-scientific reader might question the significance of these findings. But the potential implications of this foundational research are three-fold.

First, the research illustrates new behavioral patterns not previously observed with this model organism.

“We know that Myxo is damaged by UV light,” Taylor explains. “So there has to be some way for the bacteria to know that if it is exposed to light it will be damaged and it needs to get away.”

“We think when light hits Myxo, it causes a chemical reaction to make it move,” Burks adds. “In the case of red light it makes it go further away from the center of the colony trying to escape the light.”

Second, the research contributes to a growing arena of scientific study. Taylor says a relatively small group of researchers—perhaps 15 world-wide, are working on Myxo. Currently other researchers are looking into the molecules responsible for the color change to see if there are any medical ramifications.

Third, this effort contributes to teaching undergraduate students critical research techniques. Burks, who is already applying to medical schools and hopes to become a pediatrician, says she has looked forward to doing specialized research at MNU since she was a freshman. She hopes to publish her findings with Taylor, which may take two more years.

While Myxo is one of the most common forms of bacteria on earth, this research initiative may uncover mechanisms that unlock discoveries and contribute to additional research projects for current and future MNU students and the scientific community at large.

Whatever happens, Burks has an opportunity few undergraduates enjoy.

“It’s exciting to realize how much research there is left to do in this field,” she states. “I’m looking forward to the new school year and getting back in the lab.”

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