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Tiny Earth: Advancing antibiotic discoveries through undergraduate research

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Posted April 30, 2019

More and more bacteria are becoming resistant to traditional antibiotics, and this resistance has become a focal point of research at many universities. Common infections like pneumonia, tuberculosis and salmonellosis are becoming harder to treat with today’s antibiotic medicines – creating an urgent need for new antibiotics.

Tiny Earth was launched in June of 2018 to address this problem. Jo Handelsman created the program at Yale University and soon brought it to the University of Wisconsin–Madison when she returned to direct the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery.

One student group decided to manipulate the temperature in which the bacteria were cultured. Illustration by Tyler Fox / University of Wisconsin-Madison

One student group decided to manipulate the temperature in which the bacteria were cultured. Illustration by Tyler Fox / University of Wisconsin-Madison

“The program’s goals are intertwined because it is participating in addressing a global health problem that is so inspiring to the students,” says Handelsman.

The mission of Tiny Earth is twofold: to address the antibiotic crisis and to counter the shortage of professionals in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, disciplines. To accomplish this, the initiative offers a class to undergraduate students that allows them to gain substantial laboratory experience while exploring their scientific interests.

“Not only are students learning scientific research practices, they’re also actually working toward solving a major health crisis,” says Josh Pultorak, WID researcher and instructor for the undergraduate Tiny Earth course. “Recruiting students to focus on the issue is a way to collect a lot more data useful for compound discovery while also being educationally beneficial.”

In the course at UW-Madison, students are encouraged to develop their own ideas for finding which variables influence antibiotic production in bacteria. The students form small groups and choose a variable to study. One group in this semester’s class decided to manipulate the temperature at which the bacteria are cultured, while others introduced stimuli like caffeine to investigate how bacteria react.

At each biweekly meeting, the students return to their bacterial cultures and note any new developments. Their findings will be combined into their final research paper and poster report, which is displayed at the Introductory Biology research symposium at the end of the semester.

The course, which is offered and supported by the Departments of Integrative Biology and Plant Pathology under Professor Doug Rouse, is composed of freshmen and sophomores, and it satisfies their Independent Project requirement for Introductory Biology (Bio 152). For many of the students, the class presents a unique opportunity to explore their interests in research and the medical field early in their college path.

“It’s a great foot in the door for medical school, and it’d be cool to make a notable finding while in this class,” says Alec Brenner, a sophomore in the spring semester class.

Many of the students were enthusiastic about how the class is arranged, sharing their excitement about the chance to choose their own area to focus on and gain hands-on experience in that topic. This type of instruction, referred to as Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs), has proven to be more effective for teaching science than traditional lectures.

“Rather than sitting and listening passively to a lecturer, the students are actively participating and having opportunities to try new things, fail and try again,” says Pultorak. “The students are getting more comfortable learning around their peers and asking questions.”

Pultorak adds that the CURE model has been successful in encouraging students to pursue additional research opportunities and careers after they complete their coursework.

“I’m hoping this class can propel me into more research on campus,” says Jessica Dable, a sophomore. “I’m on the pre-health track, and the skills I’m learning are diverse and applicable to many other areas of science.”

Ultimately, the exploratory research of the students contributes reams of data to the Tiny Earth project, and the students gain valuable lab experience which they can take into their future careers as scientists and STEM professionals.

“All the institutions that are implementing Tiny Earth are doing antibiotic discovery research, but here at UW–Madison, we’re taking it one step further in that the students are asking research questions and making their own discoveries,” says Pultorak. “And there’s a growing number of students that have completed the course and reported that they really enjoyed it, so we’re seeing some pretty positive word-of-mouth feedback too.”

Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison

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