ALAMOSA – Adams State University biology majors Sam Ogden and Julie Starkey are pursuing their passion for science and preparing for their future through research on micro-organisms.
According to Ogden and Starkey, both ASU juniors, it is essential to study micro-organisms as well as their interactions with each other and the environment due to their overwhelming presence on Earth and their contributions to nutrient cycling, foundational biological processes, and implications for human health.
Ogden and Starkey, who study cell and molecular biology, are also betting that their research as undergraduate students will have a pay off in the form of acceptance into a Ph.D. program.
Traditional microbiological studies present limitations on characterizing microbial communities that may be overcome using metagenomics approaches. Metagenomics analysis looks at the genetic content of an entire microbial community rather than that of an individual cultivated organism used in typical genomic approaches. For instance, traditional methods of surveying microbial communities are limited to cultivating about 2 percent of all microbes present, thus providing insight into a small fraction of community composition and metabolic activities. By revealing the taxonomy and metabolic potential of non-culturable microbes, modern metagenomics techniques allow scientists to visualize a more complete picture of microbial communities and their likely metabolic activities.
Ogden and Starkey’s study revolves around a metagenomics analysis of microbial communities found along a pH gradient in areas exposed to naturally-occurring acid rock drainage located in the Alamosa River Watershed in southern Colorado. Considering that pH may influence microbial composition, it was hypothesized that the two environmental samples would have significant differences in the relative abundances of species present and the metabolic potential associated with the microbial population.
Preliminary data suggest significant variation in species composition as well as potential metabolic activity between the two locations of differing pH and heavy metal concentrations. For example, a correlation between non-culturable Leptospirillum spp. and iron oxidation pathways appeared to have a significantly greater presence in the highly acidic Alum Creek samples. While this study focuses on naturally-occurring acid rock drainage, practical applications may include investigating the use of micro-organisms as a natural solution for anthropogenic pollution within waterways as well as monitoring ecosystem health and stability based on microbiome composition.
After graduation in May of 2019, both students plan on pursuing doctoral degrees, Ogden in molecular biology and Starkey in immunology.
“As developing scientists, this project allows us to develop critical thinking skills and become familiar with the more quantitative side of biology,” Starkey said. “When looking at graduate programs, our research experience as undergraduates also increases our chances of being accepted into Ph.D. programs, while giving us a chance to find what fields of biology we are most interested in.”
Dr. Adam Kleinschmit suggested the research project to Starkey and Ogen after they expressed an interest in microorganisms. “Sam and Julie have been working on their research over the past year. I am impressed by their commitment to the project and ability to quickly pick up the computational tools used for analysis of their large sequencing data set.”
Starkey and Ogen presented their research during Student Scholar Days on April 5, at Adams State and received first place in the poster presentation competition and for best research abstract. They will also present their research in poster form at the Western-1 division regional Beta Beta Beta National Biological Honor Society conference at the University of Northern Colorado between April 13 and 14.
Funding for their research was provided by a U.S. Department of Education sponsored Adams State University Title V Research and Engagement Grant.
Caption: Adams State biology majors Sam Ogden and Julie Starkey concentrate on their assignment in their molecular biology lab./Photo by Linda Relyea