The Dirt on Antibiotics
by Rhonda Morin
When you reach into your garden and scoop up a handful of soil, what do you find? A lot of antibiotics. In fact, more than 30,000 species of bacteria live in one cubic foot of soil and buried deep in the guts of those bacteria is some terrific stuff, such as antibiotics that help humans fight infections.
Clark students have just started to learn for themselves what types of microorganisms live in the soil.
Called the Small World Initiative, Clark College has teamed up with two dozen universities and colleges from across the nation—including Yale, UConn, Drexel University and Washington State University in Pullman—to launch a pilot course that tests soil organisms for antibiotics.
“The goal is to get students excited about science,” said Ryan Kustusch, Ph.D., adjunct professor who developed the curriculum and teaches the course at Clark that made its debut this spring. “This will be their project.”
The course goes beyond standard microbiology instruction that requires testing a few well-known substances in test tubes in a laboratory setting. Instead, students conduct authentic research experiments, test soil bacteria for antibiotic activity, and identify bacteria and the chemical structure of antibiotics.
“There are opportunities to discover new antibiotics that live within microorganisms or bacteria that are resistant to current pharmaceuticals,” said Kustusch. The focus is on student learning and findings will be combined with the other universities and colleges.
The course—called Biology 280—is a five-credit course open to 22 students who are interested in science. There are no prerequisites, except an eagerness for discovery, according to Kustusch. More courses in this subject are expected to be available for the fall quarter.
iQ Credit Union provided the college with funding to develop lesson plans and purchase bacteria samples not grown in the Northwest.
Roger Michaelis, president and CEO of iQ Credit Union, said, “We are excited to provide funding for this valuable program. The opportunity this provides for our local college students to participate in a research study of this caliber is fantastic.”