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Microbiology class to research Tiny Earth in a collaborative effort to discover new bacteria

08 March 2019

Students in Jason Ghumm’s microbiology class will be viewing the earth from a much different perspective following spring break. The class will delve into a new program, Tiny Earth, which is a crowd sourcing effort to find new antibiotics. The current rate microbes are becoming resistant to antibiotics is making it critical to discover any antibiotics that are naturally occurring.

Ghumm discovered the program last summer and applied to receive training during summer 2019. Once he was approved into the program, he was informed by the program leaders they would rather began his training in January instead. He traveled to the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin – Madison for the training that took place Jan. 7-11. Approximately 35 other faculty members from various schools and universities participated in the training, where new techniques related to researching microbes were taught.

The program was started in June 2018 by Jo Handelsman, a former Yale instructor who currently works at the University of Wisconsin. The lead instructors for the program originate from the University of Wisconsin, as well as the University of Connecticut. The goal of the program is to inspire students to pursue careers in science as well as to address the worldwide health threat of the diminishing supply of effective antibiotics.

At this time, Ghumm plans on doing a truncated version of the program in his microbiology class. Students will do soil surveys, isolate microbes, grow them, and test them. Eventually, he would like to get the equipment to be able to extract chemicals out of the microbes and purify them. Students will then test the purification and if they have good results, they will send the microbes to the Wisconsin Institute of Discovery to do more extensive research. If there is any promise to the research, the microbes then will be sent to a pharmaceutical company to be refined and made into an antibiotic.

“I’m really excited to do this program with our students,” said Ghumm. “The students will learn valuable skills that will cross over into research, laboratory work at a hospital, and graduate work.”

Students will have the opportunity to showcase their findings by doing oral or poster presentations at the Tiny Earth Annual Symposiums at the University of Wisconsin. Participants can obtain scholarships to universities for research that can open doors in the ever-growing scientific research field. Ghumm would like to have students participate in the symposiums eventually, but for right now, he’s focused on refining the program.

“Because this is my first time doing this with students, I don’t think I am going to have them prepared to present at that level,” said Ghumm. “This semester will be my practice round, then hopefully once we become more involved with the program and get a little more equipment in, we can identify bacteria at the DNA level so students can make a poster and participate.”

Ghumm plans to have his current class prepare posters and present them in the library so PCC employees, students, and Pratt community members can walk around and see the research they discovered in the second half of the semester.

Currently, PCC is only the fifth school in Kansas to adopt the program. Fort Hays State University, Johnson County Community College, Kansas City Kansas Community College, and Russell High School have all begun working in the collaboration, with the latter starting as recently as last summer. Ghumm hopes the program will attract new students interested in research, as well as spark an interest in those who have never thought about research before.

“When we get some equipment in, who knows what will happen?” said Ghumm. “Maybe some of our students will identify a brand new bacteria. This is real world application of what students can potentially be doing in the science field. That’s why I really wanted to get involved with it. Hopefully I can do it justice with the students, and maybe move some over to the research side of science.”