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Little Bacteria, Big Lessons

Little Bacteria, Big Lessons

Michelle Tedford June 05, 2019

The next big discovery in medicine may well have been living quietly, for years, under a stand of trees near Stuart Hall — or on college grounds in British Columbia, or in the soil outside Lagos, Nigeria. Each location is among a network spanning 15 countries in which students are crowdsourcing the discovery of new antibiotics through the Tiny Earth Network project.

“This is important, because antibiotic resistant pathogens are becoming increasingly prevalent in society, so we need all hands on deck,” said junior biology major Erin Pellot, who worked on the Tiny Earth Network project in her general microbiology lab course spring semester. (Take a look in on the class Instagram account.)

Such a discovery would be wonderful. But the magic that’s happening in the lab — of students gaining authentic research experience in a laboratory class — is what is needed to not only advance the science but also train students in skills to solve real problems.

In her hunt for new antibiotics, Pellot focused in on a stand of trees she remembered from her freshman days living in Stuart Hall, the residence hall high on the hill overlooking campus. Based on her research, she looked for mature trees sheltering a vibrant habitat where microorganisms, in their quest for survival among competitors, may have evolved their own antibiotic defenses.


Pellot crawled on her hands and knees to collect soil samples, then took dirt back to the biology lab to nurture and grow the bacteria she found. Assistant professor Yvonne Sun and graduate assistant Erica Rinehart then asked Pellot and her classmates to pit their bacteria against non-pathogenic cousins of the top six agents of lethal bacterial infections. When they found winners — or bacteria that had antibacterial activities — they further tested them to ensure eukaryotic cells, like those in chia seeds, would not be harmed by the antibiotic defenses. 

Students took ownership over their experiments, Sun said, and the language the class used changed.

“We used phrases like, ‘What do you want to do?’ and ‘What do you think?’” she said. “The research was really about giving students an opportunity to make decisions.”

And the students were sad to have to dispose of their experiments at the semester’s end. “I’ve never seen that before,” Sun said.

Their research projects gave the students a sense of purpose, Sun said, and could help them in their evolution as scientists. And it could also, just possibly, aid in the global hunt for antibiotics, as students uploaded their results to the Tiny Earth Network database for future investigation as potential medicine.