Published by New Mexico Tech Department of Biology
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Dr. Tom Kieft
New Mexico Tech microbiologist Dr. Tom Kieft, his graduate students, and staff from the National Cave and Karst Research Institute (NCKRI) have begun a research project to help the National Park Service solve a problem at Carlsbad Cavern. Artificial lightning, which is essential for visitors to enjoy the natural wonders of the cave, has the unintended consequence of promoting the growth of algae and cyanobacteria, termed "lampenflora." The Park Service has recently installed new LED lights to save energy and to lessen the algal problem by using wavelengths of light that are less favorable to algae. Working under a grant from the Park Service, Kieft is monitoring the formation of photosynthetic biofilms for two years at multiple sites in the famous Big Room at the Cavern. They are also using high-throughput DNA sequencing to thoroughly characterize the microbes within the biofilms. Information gained through this study should help the Park Service to preserve the beautiful cavern features in a pristine state.
Dr. Snezna Rogelj
Booster Shots for Old Antibiotics
Antibiotics have been saving lives for the past 60 years, but their widespread use has resulted in evolution of highly drug-resistant bacteria. Multi-drug resistant bacteria are now a global threat as fatality rates in some cases approach 50%. For example, about 30,000 people a year in the US die from infections with Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) while MRSA hospitalization stays double. Dr. Snezna Rogelj , Chemistry research professor Liliya Frolova and their team at New Mexico Tech invented a set of drugs that re-invigorate standard antibiotics. Their drugs restore the activity of seven diverse classes of antibiotics against a wide variety of drug-resistant and drug-sensitive bacteria, including MRSA, VRE and CRE. In combination, such drug-resistant bacteria are once again susceptible to low doses of well tested, clinically proven and widely prescribed antibiotics.
As illustrated in the photograph, a related compound directly kills MRSA when activated by light (center of plate); this reduces 100,000,000 MRSA cells to 0 within two minutes of irradiation with plain white light. Analogous effect can be achieved on cancer cells.
Dr. Lindsay Waldrop
Variation in tiny tubes
The heart is the first organ in the body to function during embryonic development and its function is key to normal development of most other organs in the body. Hearts start out as very small tubes that drive fluid by sending waves of compression down its length before growing in to the large, multi-chambered organ of an adult. Understanding how these tiny tubes drive fluid flow is important to understanding many aspects of embryonic development, as well as how large, multi-chambered hearts could have evolved.
Although tiny, these tubular hearts have many features that control fluid-flow performance, which makes assessing which aspects are critical to development and evolution tricky. Dr. Lindsay Waldrop studies the performance of pumping by tiny tubes using two complementary approaches: an experimental animal model (sea squirts) that have hearts similar to those in developing embryos, and a computational model that solves fluid flow equations during simulated pumping. Through a collaboration with Yanyan He (assistant professor, NMT Mathematics), these models can be used to test how big of an impact small changes in these tubes have on fluid-flow performance, which is key to understanding how small changes can lead to large changes during development and evolution.
Dr. Siobhan Watkins
Cannabis' Little Helpers
Dr. Siobhan "Siv" Watkins is an environmental microbiologist/geneticist, and is the project's go-to expert for characterizing soil microbes. Mutually beneficial plant-microbe symbioses play a key role in sustainable crop production, and, for many plants, we understand something about how these relationships are developed, maintained, and how they may contribute to crop health and productivity. However, for Cannabis sp., little is understood with regard to how these interactions are formed and how they progress over the natural life of the plant. Headed by Dr. Siv Watkins, a research program is under development to comprehensively examine the bacterial, viral and fungal communities associated with a range of Cannabis cultivars grown under varied controlled conditions. In collaboration with a local organic marijuana farm and several other scientists at NMT, our aim is to examine the microbial processes which are of undeniable importance to sustainable production. In addition, through education and discussion, we hope that our research will contribute to global discussion regarding the benefits of medical marijuana, and become an asset to our community at large. This work is supported by a pilot grant from the National Center for Genome Resources.
Dr. Benjamin Duval
Climate Change Hits Belowground
Heavy traffic and smoke billowing from factories is what most people associate with carbon gases and climate change, but soils hold more carbon than all plant life on Earth. Dr. Ben Duval, pictured, is hoping to understand how plant roots and microbes in the soil help store that carbon belowground. Along with graduate students, Duval is studying what triggers native New Mexican pinon and juniper trees to make seeds in our dry ecosystems, a process that requires plants to put some of their carbon into roots. Soil bacteria and fungi chemically change the carbon, and play an important role in keeping it in the ground. Duval is also working on a Department of Energy funded project that will measure how much carbon gets into the soil from crop roots, and if the amount of carbon that stays belowground depends on a farmer's decisions about how and when to use fertilizer and irrigation.
Dr. Linda DeVeaux
The two main areas of research in the DeVeaux lab are the study of genetic mechanisms that allow microbial survival under extreme conditions, such as high radiation, and the potential pathogenicity of microbial communities in surface water.