Students get their hands dirty searching soil for new antibiotics
SAN FRANCISCO — A novel research program allows students to contribute to the ongoing search for new antibiotics through studying soil samples and conducting hands-on research.
The Tiny Earth project, described as a “network of instructors and students focused on crowdsourcing antibiotic discovery from soil,” was launched last year.
“Students are so much more engaged and excited working on projects such as this. They know this is something they can have an influence on and it’s something they could help discover,” Brian Dingmann, PhD, associate professor in the math, science and technology department at the University of Minnesota Crookston, told Infectious Disease News.
“Having them involved helps them take more ownership over the subject and they’re choosing their own adventure compared to a normal lab where things are more cookie-cutter. We don’t know the answers, we don’t know where their research will lead, but it’s interesting for us all.”
According to details presented at ASM Microbe, in one project, students used the Tiny Earth model to identify potentially new sources of antibiotics in an agricultural environment, focusing on isolating bacteria and testing it for potential activity against pathogens, Dingmann said.
Dingmann and Karl Anderson, PhD, a teaching specialist in the department of math, science and technology at the University of Minnesota Crookston and a collaborator on the project, said students chose agricultural soil samples surrounding cattle feeding grounds and explored them for not only new sources of antibiotics, but for differences in community structure.
“The project I’m collaborating with the USDA on looks at the antimicrobial genes from cattle feed lots. We were sampling air and soil and looking for antibiotics and thought we could work with the students to see if there are naturally producing species in those samples,” Anderson said. “If so, is there a relation between the contamination and production of antibiotics?”
Anderson said working with students on these projects and getting them involved in larger federal projects allows them to incorporate their own ideas and gets them thinking about what they could do in the field moving forward.
According to Dingmann, relevant clinical data is “a ways off,” but there are plenty of things to do and discover.
“There’s an advantage to using 30 to 40 students [at a time, per semester] — they’re your researchers and they have more hands,” he said. “Just because we didn’t find anything new this semester, it could happen the next. We just don’t know. But we do know if we don’t look, we won’t find anything.” – by Caitlyn Stulpin
Ekman D, et al. Understanding and sourcing antibiotics from agricultural soils: Utilizing Tiny Earth in the classroom. Presented at: ASM Microbe; June 20-24, 2019; San Francisco.
Disclosures: Anderson and Dingmann report no relevant financial disclosures.