Research Worth Spreading

Jennifer Liu - Sarah Mirza and Evan Vescio work on UC bacteria

Jennifer Liu '19, Sarah Mirza '20 and Evan Vescio '21 work with Pseudomonas uticensis

Nearly 17 years after its discovery, UC's namesake bacteria is growing up 

 

  

When it comes to bacteria, the last thing you want to do is spread it around. But news about bacteria? That’s another story, especially when that bacteria finds its roots, and name right here at Utica College.  

It all began in the summer 2002, when students Julia van Kessel ’03 and Tarah Scanlon ’03 were on the search for a senior research project. With some help from Professor of Biology Dr. Lawrence Aaronson, the duo began researching natural agents that kill fungi. Meanwhile, biology professor Dr. Sharon Wise was studying salamanders and mentioned to Aaronson a phenomenon that would bring the two tracks of research colliding together.

The female salamander makes very close, physical contact with her nest of eggs that she lays on the forest floor. There is a lot of mold in the soil that helps recycle nutrients and break down decaying matter. The mold can very easily overrun the nests and destroy the eggs, but when the female salamander rubs up against the egg clutch, the mold doesn’t overgrow them, the eggs hatch and baby salamanders are born. This naturally led to the question of what was on the skin of the salamanders that was confirming this antifungal activity. While some believed it was natural secretions on the skin, others theorized that it was bacteria on the skin of the salamanders that rubbed off and created antifungal compounds.

In their quest for answers, Utica College students van Kessel and Scanlon took cotton swabs and rubbed the skin of salamanders and streaked them on petri plates. A large number of colonies of bacteria grew and were then tested to see if they had antifungal properties, with two, in particular, repeatedly appeared in the sampling. One was identified as Pseudomonas fluorescens, while the other defied identification. From there, other chemical and genetic tests were performed with the nameless bacteria still not matching anything previously recorded.

What made the bacteria so notable unique was its brown color, something rarely found in nature. It is, based on every type of analysis that was performed, a distinct species. The discovery of this new species of bacteria required a name, and it found it, in the very place where it was discovered. Thus, Pseudomonas uticensis became the newest species of bacteria on record.

There have been a continuum of UC students working on the project since its 2002 start and van Kessel and Scanlon’s major contributions.

Amanda Butler ‘09, who currently works at NASA, began the DNA analysis that showed the bacteria was a distinct species. Pamela Lawrence ‘17, was the one responsible for producing the DNA that was sequenced for the entire genome sequence. Celia DeJohn ‘18, now attending graduate school at the University of Buffalo, performed some of the biochemical work on the organism and Stephanie Seifert ‘13, now in Texas, also performed some of the biochemistry work. Other students currently continue to work on the project, finding that the more that is discovered about the organism, the more work that needed to be performed, the more projects for students to dive into to learn more.

One of the many things that’s been learned thus far is that while Pseudomonas uticensis is not a pathogen organism, and does not cause disease, it did kill worms being used by Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Jessica Thomas as a model system for studying host-pathogen interactions.

While no practical application for the bacteria has been discovered just yet, it is hoped that one or more of the antifungal compounds that were isolated may prove to one day have some pharmaceutical application to treat fungal infection. While currently, the focus on the research is on the biology of the organism itself, Dr. Aaronson points out that this type of research is limitless. Dr. Aaronson and his students continue to drill deeper to unlock the secrets of this organism’s antifungal response, its production of melanin and its interaction with other microorganisms that constantly unravel new answers, and even more new questions.

Research information about the organism was published in GenBank, the international genetic sequence database, initially when partial sequencing of genes was complete. Additional publications, one of the final steps, are forthcoming. Information about Pseudomonas uticensis research can also be found on the laboratory’s website, aaronsonmicrobiology.com     

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