Category Archives: Microbiology

When Fungus is Puzzling: A Glimpse into Natural Products Research

Ninety years ago, a fungal natural product was discovered that rocked the world of medicine: penicillin. Penicillin is still used today, but in the past ninety years, drug and chemical resistance have become a hot topic of concern not only in medicine, but also in agriculture. We are in desperate need of new chemical motifs for use in a wide range of biological applications. One way to find these new compounds is through natural products chemistry. Over 50% of drugs approved in the last ~30 years have been impacted by natural products research, being directly sourced from natural products or inspired by them.

Picture a flask full of microbe juice containing a complex mixture of hundreds or thousands of chemical compounds. Most of these chemicals are not useful to humans – in fact, useful compounds are exceedingly rare. Discovering new natural products, identifying their function, and isolating them from a complex mixture of other chemicals is like solving a puzzle. Donovon Adpressa, a 5th year PhD candidate in Chemistry working in the Sandra Loesgen lab, fortunately loves to solve puzzles.

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR): an instrument used to elucidate the structure of compounds.

Donovon’s thesis research involves isolating novel compounds from fungi. Novel compounds are identified using a combination of separation and analytical chemistry techniques. Experimentally, fungi can be manipulated into producing compounds they wouldn’t normally produce by altering what they’re fed. Fungi exposed to different treatments are split into groups and compared, to assess what kind of differences are occurring. By knocking out certain genes and analyzing their expression, it’s possible to determine how the compound was made. Once a new structure has been identified and isolated, Donovon moves on to another puzzle: does the structure have bioactivity, and in what setting would it be useful?

Donovon’s interest in chemistry sparked in community college. While planning to study Anthropology, he took a required chemistry course. Not only did he ace it, but he loved the material. The class featured a one-week lecture on organic chemistry and he thought, ‘I’m going to be an organic chemist.’ However, there were no research opportunities at the community college level, and he knew he would need research experience to continue in chemistry.

At Eastern Washington University, Donovon delved into undergraduate research, and got to work on a few different projects combining elements of medicinal and materials chemistry. While still an undergrad, Donovon had the opportunity to present his research at OSU, which provided an opportunity to meet faculty and see Corvallis. It all felt right and fell into place here at OSU.

As a lover of nature and hiking in the pacific northwest, Donovon has always had a soft spot for mycology. It was serendipitous that he ended up in a natural products lab doing exactly what interested him. Donovon’s next step is to work in the pharmaceutical industry, where he will get to solve puzzles for a living!

Tune in at 7pm on Sunday, March 18th to hear more about Donovon’s research and journey through graduate school. Not a local listener? Stream the show live.

Hungry, Hungry Microbes!

Today ocean acidification is one of the most significant threats to marine biodiversity in recorded human history. Caused primarily by excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the decreasing pH of the world’s oceans is projected to reach a level at which a majority of coral reefs will die off by 2050. This would have global impacts on marine life; when it comes to maintaining total worldwide biodiversity, coral reefs are the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on the planet.

Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that ocean acidification might proceed at levels even faster than those predicted. Large resevoirs methane hydrates locked away in deep sea ice deposits under the ocean floor appear to be melting and releasing methane into the ocean and surrounding sediments due to the increasing temperature of the world’s oceans. If this process accelerates as waters continue to warm, then the gas escaping into the ocean and air might accelerate ocean acidification and other aspects of global climate change. That is, unless something– or someone– can stop it.

The area of the seafloor Scott studies lies several hundred to a few thousand meters below the surface–much too deep (and cold!) to dive down. Scott gets on a ship and works with a team of experienced technicians who use a crane to lift a device called a gravity corer off the ship deck and into the water, lowering it until it reaches the bottom, capturing and retrieving sediment.

The area of the seafloor Scott studies lies several hundred to a few thousand meters below the surface–much too deep (and cold!) to dive down. Scott gets on a ship and works with a team of experienced technicians who use a crane to lift a device called a gravity corer off the ship deck and into the water, lowering it until it reaches the bottom, capturing and retrieving sediment.

This is where methanotrophs and Scott Klasek come in. A 3rd year PhD student in Microbiology at Oregon State University, Scott works with his advisor in CEOAS Rick Colwell and with Marta Torres to study the single celled creatures that live in the deep sea floor and consume excess methane. Because of their importance in the carbon cycle, and their potential value in mitigating the negative effects of deep sea methane hydrate melting, these methanotrophs have become a valuable subject of study in the fight to manage the changes in our environment occurring that have been associated with anthropogenic climate change.

 

Here Scott is opening a pressure reactor to sample the sediment inside. Sediment cores retrieved form the ocean floor can be used for microbial DNA extraction and other geochemical measurements. Scott places sediment samples in these reactors and incubates them at the pressure and temperature they were collected at, adding different amounts of methane to them to see how the microbial communities and methane consumption change over weeks and months.

Here Scott is opening a pressure reactor to sample the sediment inside. Sediment cores retrieved form the ocean floor can be used for microbial DNA extraction and other geochemical measurements. Scott places sediment samples in these reactors and incubates them at the pressure and temperature they were collected at, adding different amounts of methane to them to see how the microbial communities and methane consumption change over weeks and months.

Most people don’t wake up one morning as a kid and say to themselves, “You know what I want to be when I grow up? Someone who studies methanotrophs and the threat of warming arctic waters.” Scott Klasek is no exception, in fact, he went into his undergraduate career at University of Wisconsin, Madison expecting to pursue an academic career path in pre med. To learn all about Scott’s research, and the twists and turns that led him to it, tune in this Sunday, April 10th, at 7pm to 88.7 KBVR FM or stream the show live!