Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Colorado College professors score $500k grants to study soil bacteria

By Carol McGraw Updated: March 17, 2014 at 12:31 pm

One could say that two Colorado College colleagues have received a $507,653 grant to study things that once lurked in dirt.

But, as with all things science related, it's way more complicated and astounding than that.

Phoebe Lostroh, associate professor of biology, and Kristine Lang, associate professor of physics, are researching how soil bacteria build a "machine;" that is, what the mechanism is that allows the bacteria to bring DNA into their cell interiors and use the genetic information.

The research could someday be used by others to invent a new class of antibiotics.

At the same time, it is giving Colorado College students a chance to do cutting-edge research.

The machine building sounds like pure science fiction, but that is what happens. Scientists just don't know how it happens or what the machine looks like. That is what the professors hope to find out.

"We are on the hunt to find the machine," Lostroh said.

It's very unusual for an undergraduate college to do this kind of research and win such a large grant from the National Science Foundation, they said.

Besides the subject matter, they were chosen because the project combines two disciplines, biology and physics, and it also gives undergraduate students a great deal of research experience.

"We are excited to be training the next generation of scientists," Lostroh said.

About 40 first-year students and others are learning to use a very high-tech and expensive atomic force microscope in a First Year Experience biophysics class taught by the two professors. Other undergraduate students will conduct research for several months, including in the summer.

Starting the journey

The two professors arrived at Colorado College about 10 years ago and became friends before they were collaborators, meeting with a group of other female scientists to talk shop.

Lostroh grew up in rural Nebraska helping her grandparents on an alfalfa farm. She bought her first computer by selling watermelon at a farmers market. She attended Grinnell College, and she was the first in her family to attend college. She received a doctorate in microbiology and molecular genetics from Harvard University.

Lang was valedictorian at Lewis-Palmer High School. One science fair project in high school was interviewing seniors in nursing homes to study the correlation between age and memory. What spurred her interest in science was a science book on black holes. "I reread it until it fell apart. I still have all the pages in a baggie," Lang said.

After being an exchange student in Austria, she decided to study international relations at Georgetown University. But she missed science, so she applied to graduate school in physics at the University of California at Berkeley. Lang had taken only five classes in undergraduate physics at Georgetown. But she was accepted in the graduate program anyway, and took two years worth of physics classes in a year. After getting her doctorate, she did research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, then came to Colorado College.

It was Lang who spotted the exotic atomic force microscope in Colorado College's basement storage, left by a former professor who had obtained it for the school through a grant.

"I resurrected it," Lang said. "But the question was: What could we do with it?"

Andrew Shum, a CC biology student, was eager to use the microscope. "I told him he could use it if he found something interesting to look at," Lang said.

It just so happened that while at the college, Lostroh had collaborated with a former mentor at Grinnell, professor Bruce Voyles, on another bacteria project. They published a paper that found that certain genes needed for the bacteria to import the DNA were turned on when the bacteria were starving.

She was now looking to take the bacteria study further. Voyles was retired, but Lang was game.

As part of the student work, they assigned Shum, a CC biology major, (who is now doing graduate work at Northwestern University) and Sam Zemedkdun, a physics major, (now a physics graduate student at University of Colorado at Boulder) to collaborate.

They developed a procedure for washing the bacteria and mounting them on very smooth mica, and then photographing them with the atomic force microscope.

Lostroh and Lang wrote a grant to expand the research.

They were shocked when they received the money.

"We had realized what it would cost for two Ph.D.s to work on it, but the National Science Foundation did not ask us to reduce the budget," Lang said.

An "astounding discovery"

To get soil bacteria, you don't start digging in the garden. Bacteria are available as lab cultures from the American Type Culture Collection. Those in the collection were gathered and preserved by scientists as long as 60 years ago. The bacteria, called Acinetobacter baylyi, are not dangerous, and at Colorado College are cryogenically preserved in tubes in a deep freeze at minus 80 degrees.

"You can scoop it out like sorbet," Lostroh said.

For 12 hours a day, students use the atomic force microscope to map the surface of the cells in search of the machines that suck up the DNA. They hope to get images of them and count them on an intact cell, which has never been done.

It takes one hour to make one image.

Senior research students have responsibility of caring for the microscope. It's hands off for untrained students. But they do create images by controlling it with a computer. Scores of students have worked on the project at one time or another, giving them valuable research experience.

Last year, students found certain changes in the bacteria cells under starvation conditions. It was an "astounding discovery" that is important to the research, Lostroh has said in a CC website article.

Mentor and inspire

It could take 10 years for the professors to find the answers they are looking for.

But they say it is the journey - the educating and mentoring of the students - that is so worthwhile.

A Palmer High School ninth-grader Rebecca Bloomfield did research at the CC lab last summer on her science fair project examining whether bacteria changes its movement when exposed to DNA. She found that they do. Bloomfield won first place in biology and the fair's runners-up grand prize at the Pikes Peak Regional Science Fair on March 8 at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

"I think it's important to mentor and inspire young women scientists," Lostroh said.

She recalls her experience. "When I was in grade school I was trying to check out a book about dinosaurs, and the librarian said, 'That's a boy's book.'"

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Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371. Twitter @mcgrawatgazette

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