Eastern Student Lauren Atkinson Wins NASA Scholarship

                                         Grant Will Help Study Antibiotic Resistance

Lauren Atkinson, left, and her research mentor Barbara Murdoch in the lab.

Written by Jolene Potter

Lauren Atkinson ’18, a Biology major at Eastern Connecticut State University from Harwinton, is one of 28 graduate or undergraduate students across Connecticut to receive a summer research fellowship from the NASA Connecticut Space Grant Consortium (CTSGC). Atkinson is using the scholarship to support her research titled “Evaluating the Scorpion Microbiome for Diversity and Antibiotic Production.”

Atkinson and Biology Professor Barbara Murdoch are testing bacteria naturally found in the abdomens of scorpions for their ability to produce antibiotics. Their focus on finding new antibiotics is due to the rising threat of antimicrobial resistance. Antimicrobial resistance is the ability of a microbe such as a virus, bacterium, or fungus to resist drugs that had been useful in treating them.

“The United Nations has declared antimicrobial resistance a fundamental global threat to human life, food production, economic development and security,” said Atkinson. “One step in responding to this threat is to develop new drugs that microbes have not developed resistance to.”

One may wonder how studying the bacteria in scorpions may help in the pursuit of new antibiotics. However, Atkinson pointed out that scorpions are an ancient lineage that has evolved alongside many terrestrial pathogens that they are exposed to in their diets. “We hypothesize that scorpions have formed symbiotic relationships with bacteria that produce antibiotics which protect the scorpions from these pathogens,” said Atkinson.

Antimicrobial resistance contributes to NASA’s overarching goal of human space exploration because under microgravity conditions, bacteria are able to grow and evolve more quickly than they do under Earth’s gravitational conditions. Therefore, the development of new antibiotics that pathogens have not evolved resistance for is crucial to long-term manned space flight.

“The discovery of new antibiotics would benefit the medical community and space exploration,” writes the CTSCG, “seeing as antibiotic resistance increases under microgravity and human immune systems weaken during missions.”