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University students seek plastic-degrading microbes

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Dana Skorupa, assistant research professor in MSU's Center for Biofilm Engineering, holds a collection of microbes sampled from Yellowstone National Park thermal features. PHOTO BY ADRIAN SANCHEZ-GONZALEZ

By Jessianne Castle EBS ENVIRONMENTAL & OUTDOORS EDITOR

BOZEMAN – Adorned in rubber boots and equipped with a lengthy rod, a handful of Montana State University students forayed into Yellowstone National Park in early September.

Armed with probes, glass vials and notebooks, they were testing thermal waters in the remote Heart Lake Geyser Basin, which is home to more than 200 geothermal features.

The 11 students hiked 9 miles to their backcountry camp in two groups for two separate four-day trips, and were accompanied by Dana Skorupa, an assistant research professor in MSU’s Center for Biofilm Engineering, and Brent Payton, the director of the college’s interdisciplinary Thermal Biology Institute. Working in the second week of the school semester, they were tasked with collecting hot spring water samples that they would later culture in a lab in an effort to break down plastic.

The sampling trip was a component of a course in the Honors College, aptly named “Extreme Microbiology in Yellowstone,” where undergraduate students learn through hands-on experience how thermophiles can be used for biotechnology.  

MSU students prepare to collect thermal spring water samples from Yellowstone National Park. PHOTO CORTESY OF DANA SKORUPA

“It’s an opportunity to have [students] learn about and see and practice the actual process of science, from designing an experiment, carrying it out, interpreting the data, communicating their findings,” said Skorupa, who is the course instructor. “From start to finish, they see the whole process, which is unique. Not only is the content something that hasn’t been offered at MSU, but it’s also a research-based course. There’s very few undergraduate courses that offer that at universities.”

The class is the first time the university has offered content on Yellowstone’s microbial thermophiles and was launched in 2016 as a part of a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation. The grant provided funds for four years and is also funding research at the Thermal Biology Institute.

With the grant expiration this year, Skorupa said faculty are looking at ways to secure funds as they plan to continue offering the course permanently. She says it’s an important opportunity to connect undergraduate students with researchers and is a great way to get younger students excited about conducting their own research.

“Being able to contribute to research so early in their undergraduate career benefits students in that it provides a window into topics that are of interest to the greater scientific community,” she said. “Often times, even when undergraduate courses have this research component, it’s not steeped in actual science the professors are conducting in their labs.”

Over the past few years, the microbiology class has evolved from challenging students to grow a microbe from Yellowstone that’s never been cultured before, to this year’s task of finding a heat-stable microbe that degrades plastic, which could be used in the recycling process to break down single-use plastics. This specific research is an extension of Skorupa’s own work in the lab, where she’s beginning to see promising results.

“These undergrads could be the first ones to find biodegraders and enzymes from these thermophiles that might be really useful in helping recycling streams,” she said. “I like to tell them that if even one of our four groups is successful that’s a huge step forward in our field of finding applications for these thermophiles. They go into it knowing it’s a long shot. But that’s part of learning the scientific process—it’s not always successful.”

A view of Heart Lake Geyser Basin where a class of microbiology students at Montana State University recently collected samples for a study on plastic degradation. PHOTO CORTESY OF DANA SKORUPA

Emory Hoelscher-Hull, 18, is a first semester freshman majoring in conservation biology who is enrolled in Skorupa’s class. She hails from Seattle and says one of the reasons she came to MSU is because she wanted to do undergraduate research.

“A year ago I could never have imagined working on a grant-funded project, working with professional researchers to solve real-world issues,” she said. “I feel really lucky to be a part of a research study that has such big applications.”

She and the rest of her class have just finished setting up a growing environment for their microbes. Within the controlled setting of the lab, they placed their microbes, liquid nutrients and plastic into culture vials and will monitor the cultures for growth and plastic breakdown over the next two months.

Hoelscher-Hull’s group of three is looking to find a microbe that breaks down PET plastic and throughout the process she said she’s learned valuable skills for conducting science in the field, as well as how to do basic lab procedures. “I think the skills I’m learning right now will definitely be helpful.”

Morgan Anderson, a 20-year-old sophomore from Oregon studying fish and wildlife management and ecology elaborated, adding that they’re also learning how to design an experiment and actually manipulate real variables rather than just talk about hypothetical variables.

“I think it’s really incredible professors are taking the time to set up this class and work with us … giving a chance for hands-on research,” she said. “It’s a really special experience that not everyone gets.”

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