Program aims to 'studentsource' antibiotic discovery

Student, teacher in Tiny Earth project
Student, teacher in Tiny Earth project

Courtesy of Patricia Pointer / Wisconsin Institute for Discovery

Science teachers from across the country are meeting this week in Madison, Wisc., for an intensive 5-day training session that aims to engage students in scientific discovery and the hunt for new antibiotics.

The training is part of the Tiny Earth program, an initiative started in 2018 at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID), a research institute on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Tiny Earth's goal is to "studentsource" antibiotic discovery by teaching a network of science teachers and students to hunt for and isolate antibiotic compounds from soil.

Program founder and WID director Jo Handelsman, PhD, a microbiologist who's spent much of her career studying antibiotics, calls soil microbes a potential "treasure trove" of new antibiotics that are waiting to be tapped.

"Bacteria from soil are the source of about two-thirds of antibiotics that in current use, so this is the logical place to look for them," Handelsman told CIDRAP News. "There's plenty of evidence that there are lots of new antibiotics to be discovered."

Learning the basics of antibiotic discovery

Over the training session, teachers are getting a crash course in microbiology and the basics of isolating organisms with antibiotic potential from soil. Instructors are teaching them how to grow bacterial colonies in a petri dish, screen soil microbes against non-pathogenic relatives of the key antibiotic-resistant organisms to see if they inhibit growth, and isolate the organisms that produce antibiotic compounds.

"We sort of do it like the cooking shows, where they get to see the results as soon as they do the experiment," said Handelsman.

There are also sessions on pedagogy and principles of scientific teaching, with a focus on active learning and how teachers can promote active learning through field research. The teachers will use the training to develop semester-long antibiotic discovery courses at their respective institutions.

Ultimately, the hope is that engaging student scientists in hands-on research on a global health issue will generate excitement about learning and potentially inspire them to pursue careers in science. Handelsman, who first taught the course in 2012 when she was a professor at Yale, says the initial idea was that teaching students how to hunt for new antibiotics in soil would add some excitement to difficult, and not-so-exciting, introductory research courses.

"We wanted to add to the concept of the research course an additional element: the urgency of a global health crisis, which is of course what antibiotic resistance is posing," she said. "We thought that if students not only had the excitement of discovery, but were doing research on a major problem that's facing the world…that would generate even more motivation for learning."

The initial class, called "microbes to molecules," only had six students. But it's popularity grew. And when Handelsman offered to train faculty at other schools to teach the course, the interest exceeded her expectations. In 2017 Handelsman came back to Madison, where she earned her PhD and taught for several years, and the Tiny Earth program was born.

The value of real-world research

This week's training session, which is being attended by 27 science teachers from universities, community, technical, and tribal colleges, and high schools, is one of the two annual training sessions conducted by Tiny Earth instructors. Overall, nearly 10,000 students in 45 states and 15 countries are taking a Tiny Earth class.

Charcacia Sanders, PhD, an instructor of biology at Prairie View A&M in Texas, is one of the teachers taking part in the training. She says she's long been interested in incorporating research into her general biology course, and the possibility of engaging her students in antibiotic discovery was exactly what she was looking for. "It makes the course more meaningful," she said. "It's not just teaching concepts, but relating concepts to real-world experiences."

Erin Bruns, MS, who teaches biology and microbiology at Spokane Community College, says her interest in the program stems both from her personal interest in antibiotics and antibiotic resistance as well as from a belief in the "deep value" of introducing undergraduate research projects as early as possible in the academic career.

"It's a topic I'm really passionate about, and it's way we can introduce undergraduate research in our classes," she said. "These are students who may never have a research opportunity."

Bruns said she hopes she can use the training to help her students investigate the interesting microbes they collect in her microbiology course.

Sanders, who's background is in molecular biology, says the training has been a great learning experience. "It's awesome that I'm getting the opportunity to work with the microbes and learn the techniques before I even go into the classroom and introduce them to my students," she said.

Turning research into reality

While students in the Tiny Earth courses may only get as far as isolating organisms with antibiotic activity and understanding the target range and the chemical aspects of those organisms, WID has built a database and a physical repository for student isolates for more advanced research.

WID is also developing a chemistry hub where scientists will test the isolates against antibiotic-resistant pathogens, further characterize the microbes, and determine which ones contain new compounds. The Joint Genome Institute and the Illumina Corporation will provide free genetic sequencing of antibiotic-resistant isolates.

Handelsman said she also hopes to find new ways to screen the large numbers of isolates they'll be receiving for antibiotic compounds. "In my own lab, we've sort of stumbled on several new antibiotics without even looking over the last 30 years," she said. "The question is, can we develop methods that will increase the probability of discovery of new ones?"

Given the urgent need for new antibiotics, and the exodus of many pharmaceutical companies from antibiotic development, Handelsman believes the effort is a necessary response to a global health crisis.

"If we're not going to trust the drug companies to work on this, then maybe the public sector needs to take it over," she said.

See also:

Tiny Earth website

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