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Undergraduate Research Forum - Part 2/3: Donna Liebelt

The University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum (UURAF) provides MSU undergrads with the opportunity to showcase their activities in a public setting. According to the website, “undergraduates gain experience in presenting their research, answer questions about their work from audience members and guests, and receive constructive feedback from judges.” Judges interact with presenters at random to ensure research is solidly understood. The best presenter in each category in each of the three sessions wins a $100 award.

Although Donna Liebelt admits she is scared of sharks, she has no problems tackling E. coli with the best of them.

Donna, originally from New Jersey but raised in Allegan, MI, is an undergrad working towards a degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology with a Plant, Animal, and Microbial Biotechnology minor. She joined the Ducat lab in April of 2015, leading to the work that netted her a first prize at the UURAF. Her research is part of the lab’s thrust to build tools that allow scientists to create alternative fuel sources out of photosynthetic organisms, cyanobacteria in particular.

Cyanobacteria: miniature energy factories

Anyone who has ever looked outside their car window as they drive through the Michigan countryside will not be surprised to know that there are thousands of years of technology associated with crop plants – anything related to breeding, watering, fertilizing, seeding, growing, etc. –  so they can efficiently provide us with food, recreation, and energy.

Image of cyanobacteria as seen under a fluorescent microscope. Each one is 3 microns big, 25 times smaller than a human hair.
Cyanobacteria as under a fluorescent microscope: each is 3 microns large, 25 times smaller than a human hair.

Recently, however, there is a growing interest in using cyanobacteria as an alternative photosynthetic organism to provide us with useful compounds.

Cyanobacteria, otherwise known as blue-green algae, are no neophytes, having successfully survived for billions of years, and even though the research into their cultivation is still fresh, we do know that these microscopic and relatively simple organisms are prodigious energy factories.

Theoretically, cyanobacteria have potential advantages over plants in terms of better photosynthetic efficiency, energy production, and environmental adaptability, as they can thrive in locations hostile to plants and can grow in areas lacking fresh water or arable soil; there have even been observations of healthy specimens clinging to the edges of hot springs or iceberg walls.

When light hits the cyanobacteria, photosynthetic mechanisms are used to transfer the energy contained in these photons  to electrons that are stripped from water. These electrons are passed through natural pathways in the cell and used to generate the energy powering cell growth and survival. The Ducat lab is trying to coax these electrons into traveling alternative, engineered pathways so that they could ultimately provide humans with a synthetic “green” energy source. 

An image from space of cyanobacteria flourishing by Fiji
Another view from space of cyanobacteria, the green filaments, by Fiji
By NASA Earth Observatory, Public Domain

Undergraduate award winning research

To accomplish this, Donna and other lab members are looking to alternative pathways to move electrons around in the cell that could be used as a separate path in addition to the photosynthetic pathways found in cyanobacteria. Enter E. coli. This notorious bacterium is known for causing many a bout of severe food poisoning and food recalls, urinary infections, and even meningitis in the less fortunate. Truth be told, most strains are harmless to us (very much like most sharks). E. coli is also one of the most well-studied bacteria, has many genetic tools, and therefore is a great testbed to develop new engineering strategies.

The concept Donna is working with is that E. coli naturally makes some electron carriers that might be added to those found in cyanobacteria, potentially providing alternative “side routes” to move electrons and power metabolic processes in cyanobacteria for our predetermined uses.

Labeled diagram of a cyanobacterium.
Diagram of a cyanobacterium
By Kelvinsong, CC BY-SA 3.0

The alternative electron transfer pathway in E. coli (and also cyanobacteria) is found in the far edges of the cell, near the cell wall (the dark green outer shell in the diagram), and is made up of a protein with iron, called a cytochrome. Cytochromes carry high-energy electrons from a donor to a receiver – think energy delivery man. They are not naturally formed inside the cell because the enzymes that are responsible for developing them are found outside of the cell membrane. Donna is trying to move these enzymes to the center of E. coli to see if cytochromes can be developed inside of the cell instead, as that is where the electrons to be carried are located, making energy transfer a more efficient process.

If and when she succeeds, she will work with her lab on transferring this new pathway back to the cyanobacteria for application. The long-range, “blue-sky” idea is that these cytochromes could then act as a new electron carrier in cyanobacteria: able to accept the electrons generated from photosynthesis and deliver them to alternative metabolic pathways that drive the production of useful compounds, like biofuels.

Creating the scientists of the future

Donna’s role as an undergrad at the PRL benefits from a culture valuing both cutting edge plant research and a nurturing environment for future scientists. Undergraduates usually work under graduate student mentors who guide their educational development and assign educational experiments that contribute to lab research goals. Donna is mentored by Jingcheng Huang, a graduate student from China in the Ducat and Kramer labs.

Donna is very appreciative of the opportunity to work with Jingcheng, saying that, “he really encourages independent thought by asking targeted questions, guiding me to an answer without giving it directly. He also challenges me to think independently in order to design my experiments, but when I run into obstacles along the way, he is there to help me solve them!”

Donna is also gushing of Ducat’s influence on her undergraduate career: “There are not enough words to express my appreciation of Dr. Ducat. In addition to being supportive, he makes me feel that each progression in the project, even if a setback, is a celebration in my growth as a scientist.”

Ducat has opened her up to new educational opportunities that were not previously on her radar, such as the UURAF, which she considers very valuable for her development. In addition to the direct benefits to her current project she has gotten from interacting with visitors, one of the main lessons Donna has gleaned from her poster presentation is how to verbally communicate scientific research to diverse audiences, a critical component of scientific engagement with the public.

Image of Donna presenting her poster at the UURAF
Donna presenting her poster
Courtesy of Donna Liebelt

She remembers recurring questions during her presentations which indicated parts that needed to be clarified. “At first, I struggled with explaining my project in a way that was specific to the audience,” Donna says. “UURAF visitors had very diverse backgrounds. I would have undergraduates, graduates, and professors around at the same time, so I had to cater to the needs and backgrounds of each of them. Throughout my session, I learned how to read audience expressions, which helped me identify which concepts I needed to elaborate on.”

At first, Donna was shocked to find out that she won the award for her presentation. She insists though that, "There were many behind the scenes that helped me prepare by proofreading, giving suggestions on the poster, and listening to my delivery (repeatedly) until it felt right. It feels amazing that I took something I'm extremely excited about and get other people excited about it too.”

Congratulations to Donna from all of us at the PRL!

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