Tag Archive for Biology

Student Researchers Discover Potential “Plastic-Eating” Bacteria on Campus

Chloe De Palo '22

Chloe De Palo ’22 explains how potential plastic-degrading bacteria were collected from a soil sample at Long Lane Farm.

A team of researchers at Wesleyan has discovered new strains of bacteria—located on the University’s campus—that may have the ability to break down microplastics and aid in the world’s ongoing plastic waste crisis.

Microplastics, which measure less than .20 of an inch, enter the ecosystem— and our bodies— largely through the abrasion of larger plastic pieces dumped into the environment. According to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, the average person consumes at least 50,000 particles of microplastic a year and inhales a similar quantity.

“Plastic is typically classified as a non-biodegradable substance. However, some bacteria have proven themselves to be capable of metabolizing plastics,” said Chloe De Palo ’22. “Ultimately, through our research and experiments, we hope to find an effective method of removing plastic pollutants from the environment.”

Fatai Olabemiwo

Fatai Olabemiwo

De Palo ’22, along with Rachel Hsu ’23; Claudia Kunney ’24; and biology PhD candidate Fatai Olabemiwo are members of the Cohan Laboratory in Microbiology, led by Fred Cohan, Huffington Foundation Professor in the College of the Environment, professor of biology. The team has spent almost two years working on a project titled “Isolating Potential Plastic Degraders from a Winogradsky Column.” They presented their most recent findings at Wesleyan’s Summer Research Poster Session.

On March 7, 2020 the research team gathered soil samples from Wesleyan’s Long Lane Farm. They placed samples of the agricultural soil, along with plastic strips, inside a modified Winogradsky column, a microbiological tool for culturing broad microbial diversity. The device—invented by Russian scientist Sergei Winogradsky in the 1880s—is still commonly used today to culture bacteria from natural soil and sediments.

project

Pictured is a Winogradsky column on day 1 (March 7, 2020) and day 496 (June 28, 2021)

“We modified this wonderful device to yield a range of plastic degrades by placing plastic strips at four different zones inside the column,” Olabemiwo explained. “Then we added a medium called Bushnell-Haas Broth, which contains all the requirements for the growth of the microbes except for carbon, to the modified device.”

Now that the columns are sealed, it’s time to wait—for 16 months.

“During this time, we expected the bacteria to ‘tickle’ the strips and eventually adhere to the strips,” Olabemiwo said.

The experiment worked surprisingly well. After 496 days in the soil-broth mixture, Cohan Lab members removed the plastic strips aseptically. Not only did they weigh less, proving that bacteria were effectively decomposing the plastic, but the strips also hosted a diverse community of bacteria from which the lab members isolated 146 strains.

While the majority of the bacteria cultures could be identified through the National Center for Biotechnological Information (NCBI) taxonomy browser, the researchers learned that 24 were discovered species but not characterized and classified, and 28 were novel, undiscovered species.

“We’ll actually be naming them, genomically sequencing them, and adding them to the NCBI taxonomy browser, ” Cohan said.

Now that each bacterium is isolated, the Cohan Lab is working this fall to confirm their potential plastic-degrading abilities by feeding them minute plastic discs in a petri dish. If confirmed, the “plastic-eaters” could help biotechnological companies create a product that could remove microplastics from the environment.

Rachel Hsu '23, Kunney, Chloe De Palo '22

Rachel Hsu ’23, Chloe De Palo ’22, and Claudia Kunney ’24 are the undergraduate researchers working on the project.

bacteria

Rachel Hsu, a biology and psychology double major, holds samples of the isolated bacteria in a petri dish.

Sultan, Waterman ’20 Co-Author Paper on Plant Reproduction

Professor of Biology Sonia Sultan recently co-authored an article titled “Transgenerational effects of parent plant competition on offspring development in contrasting conditions” with BA/MA student Robin Waterman ’20. The article, published in Ecology on Sept. 8, examines the relationship between parent plants and their offspring, especially how competition among such parent plants can alter the next generation.

“Conditions during a parent’s lifetime can induce phenotypic changes in offspring, providing a potentially important source of variation in natural populations. Yet to date, biotic factors have seldom been tested as sources of transgenerational effects in plants,” reads an excerpt from the paper’s abstract.

Naegele’s Neuroscience Research Published in Journals 

Jan Naegele

Jan Naegele

Janice Naegele, Alan M. Dachs Professor of Science, dean of the Natural Sciences and Mathematics Division, and professor of biology, is the co-author of three recent publications. Naegele’s work focuses on stem cells and finding new treatments for epilepsy and brain damage.

Naegele’s articles include the following:

Induction of temporal lobe epilepsy in mice with pilocarpine,” published by BioProtocol in February 2020.

Development of electrophysiological and morphological properties of human embryonic stem cell-derived GABAergic interneurons at different times after transplantation into the mouse hippocampus,” published by PLoS One in August 2020.

Optogenetic interrogation of ChR2-expressing GABAergic interneurons after transplantation into the mouse brain,” published by Methods in Molecular Biology in September 2021.

Restored Peacock Displayed in Wesleyan’s Science Library

peacock

The entrance to the Science Library in Exley Science Center houses a taxidermied peacock that has been restored by faculty and students in the biology department. The peacock, originally rediscovered in 2018 and put on exhibit in spring 2019, is part of a bird collection that was first displayed at the museum in Judd Hall and now belongs to the Wesleyan Museum of Natural History.

The restoration team, which includes Professor of Biology Ann Campbell Burke, Yu Kai Tan BA/MA ’21, Andy Tan ’21, and Fletcher Levy ’23, recently updated the display to include new signage and fresh peacock feathers from biology professors Stephen Devoto and Joyce Ann Powzyk’s farm.

“It was found in storage alongside a whole bunch of minerals in Room 316 of Exley,” Yu Kai Tan said. “It was sitting way up high on this shelf, and probably since 1970, no one has looked at it or touched it. It was covered in dust and muck.”

When the team first found the peacock, it was in such poor condition that they needed to call for outside help.

Students’ Essays on Infectious Disease Prevention, COVID-19 Published Nationwide

cohan

More than 25 students in Fred Cohan’s Global Change and Infectious Disease course have had op-eds published in media outlets nationwide. Cohan, professor of biology and Huffington Foundation Professor in the College of the Environment (pictured), assigns the op-ed writing as part of his course and offers students extra credit if they are able to get their work published.

As part of the BIO 173: Global Change and Infectious Disease course, Professor Fred Cohan assigns students to write an essay persuading others to prevent future and mitigate present infectious diseases. If students submit their essay to a news outlet—and it’s published—Cohan awards them with extra credit.

As a result of this assignment, more than 25 students have had their work published in newspapers across the United States. Many of these essays cite and applaud the University’s Keep Wes Safe campaign and its COVID-19 testing protocols.

Cohan, professor of biology and Huffington Foundation Professor in the College of the Environment (COE), began teaching the Global Change and Infectious Disease course in 2009, when the COE was established. “I wanted very much to contribute a course to what I saw as a real game-changer in Wesleyan’s interest in the environment. The course is about all the ways that human demands on the environment have brought us infectious diseases, over past millennia and in the present, and why our environmental disturbances will continue to bring us infections into the future.”

Over the years, Cohan learned that he can sustainably teach about 170 students every year without running out of interested students. This fall, he had 207. Although he didn’t change the overall structure of his course to accommodate COVID-19 topics, he did add material on the current pandemic to various sections of the course.

“I wouldn’t say that the population of the class increased tremendously as a result of COVID-19, but I think the enthusiasm of the students for the material has increased substantially,” he said.

To accommodate online learning, Cohan shaved off 15 minutes from his normal 80-minute lectures to allow for discussion sections, led by Cohan and teaching assistants. “While the lectures mostly dealt with biology, the discussions focused on how changes in behavior and policy can solve the infectious disease problems brought by human disturbance of the environment,” he said.

Based on student responses to an introspective exam question, Cohan learned that many students enjoyed a new hope that we could each contribute to fighting infectious disease. “They discovered that the solution to infectious disease is not entirely a waiting game for the right technologies to come along,” he said. “Many enjoyed learning about fighting infectious disease from a moral and social perspective. And especially, the students enjoyed learning about the ‘socialism of the microbe,’ how preventing and curing others’ infections will prevent others’ infections from becoming our own. The students enjoyed seeing how this idea can drive both domestic and international health policies.”

A sampling of the published student essays are below:

Alexander Giummo ’22 and Mike Dunderdale’s ’23 op-ed titled “A National Testing Proposal: Let’s Fight Back Against COVID-19” was published in the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.

They wrote: “With an expansive and increased testing plan for U.S. citizens, those who are COVID-positive could limit the number of contacts they have, and this would also help to enable more effective contact tracing. Testing could also allow for the return of some ‘normal’ events, such as small social gatherings, sports, and in-person class and work schedules.

“We propose a national testing strategy in line with the one that has kept Wesleyan students safe this year. The plan would require a strong push by the federal government to fund the initiative, but it is vital to successful containment of the virus.

“Twice a week, all people living in the U.S. should report to a local testing site staffed with professionals where the anterior nasal swab Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test, used by Wesleyan and supported by the Broad Institute, would be implemented.”

Kalyani Mohan ’22 and Kalli Jackson ’22 penned an essay titled “Where Public Health Meets Politics: COVID-19 in the United States,” which was published in Wesleyan’s Arcadia Political Review.

They wrote: “While the U.S. would certainly benefit from a strengthened pandemic response team and structural changes to public health systems, that alone isn’t enough, as American society is immensely stratified, socially and culturally. The politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic shows that individualism, libertarianism and capitalism are deeply ingrained in American culture, to the extent that Americans often blind to the fact community welfare can be equivalent to personal welfare. Pandemics are multifaceted, and preventing them requires not just a cultural shift but an emotional one amongst the American people, one guided by empathy—towards other people, different communities and the planet. Politics should be a tool, not a weapon against its people.”

Sydnee Goyer ’21 and Marcel Thompson’s ’22 essay “This Flu Season Will Be Decisive in the Fight Against COVID-19” also was published in Arcadia Political Review.

“With winter approaching all around the Northern Hemisphere, people are preparing for what has already been named a “twindemic,” meaning the joint threat of the coronavirus and the seasonal flu,” they wrote. “While it is known that seasonal vaccinations reduce the risk of getting the flu by up to 60% and also reduce the severity of the illness after the contamination, additional research has been conducted in order to know whether or not flu shots could reduce the risk of people getting COVID-19. In addition to the flu shot, it is essential that people remain vigilant in maintaining proper social distancing, washing your hands thoroughly, and continuing to wear masks in public spaces.”

Students, Alumni to Make Presentations at Geological Society of America Meeting

Wesleyan students, graduate students, and recent alumni will present research posters during the annual Geological Society of America meeting Oct. 26–30. The virtual event will allow for a five-minute presentation followed by a five-minute period to answer questions.

poster

Earth and environmental sciences graduate student Yu Kai Tan ’20 and Andy (Dick Yee) Tan ’21 will present their poster, titled “Freshwater Mussels in North America: Museum Collections and Pre-Industrial Biogeography,” at 5:15 p.m. Oct. 29. Their advisors are Ann Burke, professor of biology, and Ellen Thomas, Harold T. Stearns Professor of Integrative Sciences, Smith Curator of Paleontology of the Joe Webb Peoples Museum of Natural History, and University Professor in the College of Integrative Sciences. Listen to the presentation in advance online here.

Accelerating the Climate Revolution, Life on Venus Discussed at “Where on Earth Are We Going?” Symposium

The 18th annual “Where on Earth Are We Going?” Symposium of the Robert F. Schumann Institute of the College of the Environment was held on Oct. 16 and 17 in a virtual format as part of Homecoming and Family Weekend events.

During the 18th annual "Where on Earth Are We Going? Symposium of the Robert F. Schumann Institute of the College of the Environment," Jacob Scherr '70 (bottom left) and Amy Gomberg Kurt '04 (top right) served as keynote speakers of the event titled "Accelerating the Climate Revolution." Alys Campaigne

On Oct. 16, Jacob Scherr ’70 (left) and Amy Gomberg Kurt ’04 (center) served as keynote speakers of a discussion titled “Accelerating the Climate Revolution.” Barry Chernoff (right), the Robert Schumann Professor of Environmental Studies, professor of biology and earth and environmental studies, served as the event’s moderator.

COE

Five years ago this December, Jacob Scherr, an international environmental attorney, lit up the Eiffel Tower to mark the start of the “Climate Revolution” with the signing of the historic Paris Climate Agreement. Since then, the signs of a changing climate have become more evident, and calls for action, particularly from young people, have grown louder in spite of the Trump Administration’s determination to withdraw the U.S. from its international leadership on this existential threat. Scherr shared his decades-long first-hand perspective of where we are today in the U.S. and worldwide in dealing with the climate crisis. “I feel confident that we’ve indeed built a strong global architecture that can stimulate transformative climate action worldwide once there’s the political will,” he said. “I hope that I can return to Wesleyan for my 55th reunion in person, and I hope all of us can celebrate, then, the accelerating climate revolution.”

Discovery by Chernoff and Students Challenges a Tenet of Evolutionary Biology

Barry Chernoff and students in University of Michigan lab

Barry Chernoff and students in his Tropical Ecology course conducted research at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, where they discovered two new species of fish that challenged an expectation from evolutionary theory.

As organisms evolve over time, changes in size—both miniaturization and gigantism—are a major theme. In fish, which are the specialty of Barry Chernoff, the Robert Schumann Professor of Environmental Studies, Professor of Biology and of Earth & Environmental Sciences, miniaturization happens in many lineages, though it’s not very common. Evolutionary biology has long held that this miniaturization is often accompanied by developmental simplification or paedomorphisis (becoming sexually mature while appearing juvenile-like).

chernoffLast March, just before the pandemic began, Chernoff and students in his Tropical Ecology course (ENVS/Bio/E&ES 306) took a trip to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., which is home to one of the largest scientific collections of natural history objects, or specimens, and allows visitors to work with their collections. There, they discovered two new species of fish from the tropics—one from Honduras and one from Colombia. In these new species, the data demonstrated the opposite of expectations from evolutionary theory: that miniaturization occurred with developmental acceleration. That is, the miniatures achieve adult morphology in a shorter period of time by accelerating the transformation from juvenile morphologies to adult morphologies.

3 Students Win Scientific Imaging Contest

Images depicting star collisions, atom movement in yeast ribosomes, and herbaceous plant root scans were the winning entries of the 2020 Wesleyan Scientific Imaging Contest.

The Wesleyan Scientific Imaging Contest, held annually in August, recognizes student-submitted images—from experiments or simulations done with a Wesleyan faculty member—that are scientifically intriguing, as well as aesthetically pleasing. The contest is organized by the College of Integrative Sciences as part of the summer research program.

The winners included Osama Elgabori ’22, Carol Dalgarno ’21, and Jolie Villegas ’21. Elgabori’s advisor is Brian Stewart, professor of physics; Dalgarno’s advisor is Michael Weir, professor of biology; and Villegas’ advisor is Sonia Sultan, professor of biology.

Faculty, Alumni, Students Publish Books, Journal Articles

Several faculty have recently authored or co-authored books, book chapters, and articles that appear in prestigious academic journals.

BOOKS AND BOOK CHAPTERS

books

Eric Charry, professor of music, is the author of A New and Concise History of Rock and R&B through the Early 1990s (Wesleyan University Press, 2020).

Robert “Bo” Conn, professor of Spanish, is the author of Bolívar’s Afterlife in the Americas: Biography, Ideology, and the Public Sphere (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

Anthony Ryan Hatch, associate professor of science in society, is the author of three book chapters:
“The Artificial Pancreas in Cyborg Bodies,” published in The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of the Body and Embodiment (Oxford University Press, 2020.) Sonya Sternlieb ’18 and Julia Gordon ’18 are co-authors.

“Against Diabetic Numerology in a Black Body, or Why I Cannot Live by the Numbers,” published in Body Battlegrounds: Transgressions, Tensions, and Transformations (Vanderbilt University Press, 2019).

“Food Sovereignty and Wellness in Urban African American Communities,” published in Well-Being as a Multi-Dimensional Concept: Understanding Connections between Culture, Community, and Health (Lexington Books, 2019). Deja Knight ’18 is a co-author.

James McGuire, professor of government, is the author of Democracy and Population Health (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

JOURNAL ARTICLES 
Three Wesleyan faculty, three recent alumni, and one undergraduate collaborated on an interdisciplinary study titled “A Ribosome Interaction Surface Sensitive to mRNA GCN Periodicity,” published in the journal Biomolecules, June 2020.

The co-authors include Michael Weir, professor of biology; Danny Krizanc, Edward Burr Van Vleck Professor of Computer Science; and Kelly Thayer, assistant professor of the practice in integrative sciences; William Barr ’18 MA ’19; Kristen Scopino ’19; Elliot Williams ’18, MA ’19; and Abdelrahman Elsayed ’21.

Barr and Williams worked on the project as a part of their BA/MA program.

Anthony Ryan Hatch is the author of three journal articles:
Du Boisian Propaganda, Foucauldian Genealogy, and Antiracism in STS Research,” published in Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, 2020.

Sugar Ecologies: Their Metabolic and Racial Effects,” published in 22 Food, Culture, and Society, 2019. Sonya Sternlieb ’18 and Julia Gordon ’18 are co-authors.

Two Meditations in Coronatime,” published by the Section on Science, Knowledge, and Technology of the American Sociological Association, May 2020.

Jennifer Tucker, associate professor of history, is featured in the article “Guns, Germs, and Public History: A Conversation with Jennifer Tucker,” published by the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, July 2020.

Margot Weiss, associate professor of anthropology, associate professor of American studies, is the author of “Intimate Encounters: Queer Entanglements in Ethnographic Fieldwork,” published in Anthropological Quarterly, Volume 93, June 2020, and “Hope and Despair in the Queer Nonprofit Industrial Complex,” published in the GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Volume 26, April 2020.

Faculty Publish Books, Journal Articles

Several faculty have recently authored or co-authored books, book chapters, and articles that appear in prestigious academic journals.

BOOKS AND BOOK CHAPTERS

barnhart book

Book by Joslyn Barnhart

fusso book

Book translated by Susanne Fusso

weilbook

Book by Kari Weil

Joslyn Barnhart, assistant professor of government, is the author of The Consequences of Humiliation: Anger and Status in World Politics (Cornell University Press, 2020).

Susanne Fusso, Marcus L. Taft Professor of Modern Languages, is the translator of The Nose and Other Stories by Nikolai Gogol (Columbia University Press, 2020).

Ruth Johnson, associate professor of biology, is the author of a book chapter titled “Adhesion and the Cytoskeleton in the Drosophila Pupal Eye,” published in the book Molecular Genetics of Axial Patterning, Growth and Disease in the Drosophila Eye (Springer Science and Business Media, 2020).

Elizabeth McAlister, professor of religion, is the author of a chapter titled “Sacred Waters of Haitian Vodou: The Pilgrimage of Sodo,” published in Sacred Waters: A Cross-Cultural Compendium of Hallowed Springs and Holy Wells (Routledge, 2020).

Kari Weil, University Professor of Letters, is the author of the book Precarious Partners: Horses and Their Humans in Nineteenth-Century France (University of Chicago Press, 2020). She also wrote a book chapter titled “The Animal Novel That Therefore This Isn’t,” published in New Approaches to the Twenty-FirstCentury Anglophone Novel (Palgrave MacMillan, 2019).

 

JOURNAL ARTICLES

Lindsay Dolan, assistant professor of government, is the author of “Rethinking Foreign Aid and Legitimacy: Views from Aid Recipients in Kenya,” which was published in Studies in Comparative International Development 55(2) in 2020.

Ruth Johnson, associate professor of biology, and Joe Coolon, assistant professor of biology, are co-authors of “Mask, a Component of the Hippo Pathway, is Required for Drosophila Eye Morphogenesis,” published in Developmental Biology in August 2020. The study also is featured on the cover of Issue 464.

Bill Johnston, professor of history, is the author of “Epidemic Culture in Premodern Japan,” published June 23 by the Society for Cultural Anthropology, from the Series “Responding to an Unfolding Pandemic: Asian Medicines and Covid-19.”

Robert Lane, associate professor and chair of molecular biology and biochemistry, is the author of “Bioinformatics discovery of putative enhancers within mouse odorant receptor gene clusters,” published in Chemical Senses, 44(9), 2019.

Ioana Emy Matesan, assistant professor of government, is the author of “Grievances and Fears in Islamist Movements: Revisiting the Link between Exclusion, Insecurity, and Political Violence,” published in the Journal of Global Security Studies in 2020.

Ishita Mukerji, Fisk Professor of Natural Science and professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, and Manju Hingorani, visiting scholar in molecular biology and biochemistry, are the co-authors of “Mismatch Recognition by Msh2-Msh6: Role of Structure and Dynamics,” published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences on Aug. 31, 2019.

Anna Shusterman, associate professor of psychology, is the co-author of “Working in the Research-to-Practice Gap: Case Studies, Core Principles, and a Call to Action,” published in PsyArXiv on Sept. 23, 2019. Six Wesleyan students also are co-authors of the article.

Justine Quijada is the author of “From Culture to Experience: Shamanism in the Pages of the Soviet Anti-Religious Press,” published in Contemporary European History, Vol. 29, Special Issue 2 (Religion and Socialism in the Long 1960s: From Antithesis to Dialogue in Eastern and Western Europe), 2020.

View all faculty publications online here.

Cohan: Human Behavior Affects Virus Evolution

Frederick Cohan

Frederick Cohan

Frederick Cohan, the Huffington Foundation Professor in the College of the Environment, professor of biology, is a microbial ecologist whose course “Global Change and Infectious Disease” examines how human disturbance of the environment contributes to infectious disease outbreaks. He also researches the origins of diversity among both bacteria and viruses.

In early February, as the novel coronavirus was beginning to spread, Cohan wrote an article in The Conversation, co-authored with PhD candidate Kathleen Sagarin and Kelly Mei ’20, titled, “A Clue to Stopping Coronavirus: Knowing How Viruses Adapt From Animals to Humans.”

Cohan also was interviewed recently by The Wesleyan Argus about the biology of the coronavirus.

You teach a course on Global Change and Infectious Disease, which looks at how human disturbance of the environment can contribute to infectious disease outbreaks like the one we’re now living through. Can you give us a brief introduction to the course?

I teach this course every year or two, and there are usually over 170 students enrolled. I’m also in the middle of writing a book based on the course content. We talk about five categories of environmental disturbance that humans are creating or have created in the past that bring new diseases to us or exacerbate existing ones. The categories are: demand for food (hunting and agriculture), demand for land (living at high density), demand for travel, demand for energy, and demand for health care (including antibiotics).