SCF works with Yale soil bacteria research

eearl@bradenton.comFebruary 4, 2014 

MANATEE -- Microbiology students at the State College of Florida are partnering with Yale University in hopes of making groundbreaking discoveries in antibiotics.

Students are screening soil samples for bacteria that produce antibodies. If new antibiotics are discovered, it could help medicine address the health threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

SCF student Matt Britten, in his first year in the microbiology program, said he is excited to conduct "real research."

"A big problem is 'super bugs,' microbes that have grown a major resistance to antibiotics," Britten said. "Finding new antibiotics would open doors for pharmaceutical research."

The State College of Florida is one of 24 U.S. colleges chosen to dig for new antibiotics in local soils. The year-long pilot research program is spearheaded by Yale University.

Jane Pfeilsticker, natural science department chairwoman at the State College of Florida, said students will screen samples for inhibited

fungi growth.

"It is not too hard to examine the antibiotics found in their samples," Pfeilsticker said. "They will be using isolation techniques they have learned."

SCF students took samples from areas around Manatee County and college grounds. Britten said his approach has been to collect soil from areas of high vegetation.

Natural science instructor Eric Warrick encouraged students to be creative and bring in samples from composts and fruit peels.

While SCF students collect samples from the beach and ponds in their backyards, Warrick said Yale students had to use hot butter knives to collect soil samples from beneath the snow.

"We don't know where the next new antibiotic will come from, but we just have to try," Warrick said.

The multi-step process of isolating and screening bacteria samples relied on test procedures students learned in lab classes. "One simple mistake can contaminate the whole thing," Britten said.

Britten said it is intriguing to work on a project with unknown outcomes.

"We usually learned from controlled, predetermined experiments," Britten said. "This project has increased my interest in science because it is real research."

Warrick said many of his students are underclassmen, and this is their first exposure to authentic research.

Before starting the project, Warrick attended a five-day workshop at Yale where he found several antibiotic-producing microbes.

"We know they will discover it. What we don't know is if they will find new compounds or antibiotics that are already known," Warrick said. "If they find new antibiotics it could be lucrative. If they find known antibiotics, it will still be meaningful because they can document where it was found."

Student Roxanna Perez said she hopes to discover a new, unknown antibiotic.

"It would be good to get recognition," Perez said. "If I found it right now, it could help thousands of people."

Tiffany Tsang, post-doctoral associate for the Center for Scientific Teaching at Yale, said much of the first stage of the project is being handled by professors.

"They are learning to look at an organism down to its molecules and narrow down what they are looking for," Tsang said. "We are here for help and support."

Other collaborators include Florida Southern College, the University of Hawaii, Washington State University and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Soil samples will be taken throughout the semester. SCF microbiology students will present their findings at a symposium April 21 at the college, although Yale's chemical analysis will not be completed by then.

Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.

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