Students Combat Antibiotic-Resistance Crisis via ‘Tiny Earth’

Students in Bio 334 test bacteria for antibiotic properties.

Written by Michael Rouleau

Eastern Connecticut State University is joining the push to mitigate one of the world’s most critical public health crises: antibiotic resistance. Through a new opportunity in the Biology Department, Eastern students are tapping into the Tiny Earth network, an international crowdsourcing effort that engages young scientists in the search for new antibiotic medicines.

The United Nations has named antibiotic resistance a global priority. Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections such as pneumonia. The problem? As antibiotics are misused – and new ones are slowly discovered – harmful bacteria develop resistances against them, rendering the medications ineffective.

Through Bio 334 (General Microbiology), Eastern students have joined scientists worldwide in the pursuit of new antibiotics by examining microorganisms found in soil. Why soil? Many of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics were discovered from “dirt,” including penicillin and vancomycin.

Students in Bio 334 test bacteria for antibiotic properties.

“Our supply of effective antibiotics is dwindling, leaving people susceptible to extended illness and even death as a result of seemingly simple bacterial infections,” wrote Biology Professors Barbara Murdoch and Jonathan Hulvey, leaders of Eastern’s antibiotic resistance efforts. “Of even more concern is that only a few new classes of antibiotics have been created since the 1970s, and many pharmaceutical companies have abandoned the search for new antibiotics because of dwindling profit margins and long timelines for FDA approval.”

Eastern’s laboratory findings, and those of the thousands of other students tapped into the network, are sent to Tiny Earth headquarters at the University of Wisconsin. There are more than 200 schools across the United States and 14 countries participating in Tiny Earth — hence the “student-sourcing.”

“I feel as though we are a part of the fight against antibiotic resistance,” said Max Walter ’19, a biology major enrolled in Bio 334. “There are already reemerging pathogenic outbreaks happening around the world, such as tuberculosis.”

Classmate Katlyn Little ’19 echoed, “There’s a purpose to what we’re doing. It’s not an arbitrary lab to learn skills. There’s real importance behind it.”

A goal of the project is to get young people excited about science while training them in important molecular techniques. Research has shown that students who engage in authentic research experiences are more likely to pursue and persist in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

“A big part of this program is having students take ownership over their own research project,” said Hulvey, who is leading Bio 334. “The fact that it’s connected to this global effort makes it all the better.”

Jonathan Hulvey teaches in his General Microbiology course (Bio 334), which has a laboratory component connected to Tiny Earth.

“What I like best about the lab is that we are allowed a lot of freedom,” said Molly Corvello ’18, a biology major enrolled Bio 334. “We get to decide what bacteria to test and which pathogens to test against. We’re doing actual lab work and there’s real mystery involved. This isn’t a ‘cookie-cut’ lab where the outcome is already known. It’s pretty exciting to think that the bacteria we find may be used in the future of medicine.”

Murdoch has led students through this research via independent study for the past several years. “We’re not telling the students what to do,” she said of the Tiny Earth approach. “We tell them the project and teach the skills they’ll need. They do genetic analysis and bioinformatics. They can take it as far as they want and apply these skills to other areas of science.”

Eastern students have gone to Church Farm, an Eastern property in rural Ashford, to collect soil samples. Collections have come from wetland areas, loamy soils and sandy soils. This experimentation and comparison of soil types is part of each student’s individual project.

When they return to the lab, they isolate bacteria from the soil; test the bacteria to see if they deter the growth of other bacteria, which indicates the possible presence of antibiotics; and then test to find the identity of the deterrent bacteria.

A student in Bio 334.

“In addition to testing bacterial colonies for the production of potentially significant antibiotic molecules, we must conduct additional tests to determine what species we are actually studying,” said biology and mathematics double-major Stefanos Stravoravdis ’20. “In doing such, this experiment acquires an interesting element of discovery ordinarily absent when conducting stock lab procedures with anticipated results.”

Hulvey added, “As their projects develop, they gain new skills. They’re learning how to analyze DNA sequences or how to carry out biochemical tests for identifying bacteria. These are skills that students would hope to learn in any microbiology class, but we’re putting it in the context of this semester-long project.”

Another goal of the project is to increase awareness of the antibiotic resistance crisis. Eastern is collaborating with local schools, such as Ellis Technical High School in Danielson, which are helping to collect soil samples. “This is an avenue to educate the public and to pique the interest of high school students,” said Hulvey.

Murdoch originally brought the student-sourcing approach of Tiny Earth to Eastern in 2013, piloting it via independent study projects.

“I wanted to link my research to a larger global problem,” said Murdoch, “and to enhance the critical thinking, research and communication skills of our students, as well as provide them with outreach opportunities to communicate the antibiotic crisis to audiences beyond Eastern. I’m thrilled that Tiny Earth is finally being delivered in a classroom setting, under the direction of Dr. Hulvey.”

Hulvey has been engaged in a similar vein of research for the past eight years, testing antimicrobial resistance in fungi.

“Dr. Murdoch introduced me to Tiny Earth, which I immediately saw as a tremendous opportunity to immerse students in the world of microbiology and in a way that benefits society,” he said. “Her enthusiasm, along with that of other Tiny Earth folks, is contagious and I’m seeing this semester that my students have also caught the antibiotic-discovery bug!”

For more information, contact Hulvey and Murdoch at hulveyj@easternct.edu and murdochb@easternct.edu, or visit the Tiny Earth website at https://tinyearth.wisc.edu/.