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Trio takes on bacteria project


As anyone who has seen the movie War of the Worlds will tell you, bacteria could save us all someday. Wofford associate biology professor Stefanie Baker is a big fan of the microbes, and thinks the “save us all” mentality isn’t so far-fetched. Only instead of saving us from invaders from other planets, they could save us from ourselves.

Baker, with students Courtney Gregory and Nicole Woller at her side, is taking a complementary approach to global warming as part of Wofford's Community of Scholars program this summer. While most people are focusing on ways to decrease the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, Baker and Co. are hoping their research can lead to removing the carbon dioxide that is already there. How, exactly?

“The purpose of this project is to determine if the protein CbbR can bind to a specific region of DNA, and if so, this protein can potentially be a regulator of two different forms of a carbon dioxide removing enzyme,” says Gregory, a biology major (’10) from Spartanburg, S.C.

“These enzymes that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere can help reduce the greenhouse gas effect on our environment,” adds Woller, a biology major (’11) from Columbia, S.C. “In order to accomplish this (determine if CbbR binds to the specific DNA), we must first isolate the desired DNA and label it so we can see it. Then we need to alter E. coli bacteria so that it can produce the desired protein for us. Once we have obtained our protein and DNA, we will introduce the two together and determine if they bind.”

A specific bacterium called Halothiobacillus neapolitanus is what Baker and Gregory are working on, while Woller is working with Thiomonas intermedia.

“(Halothiabacillus) ibctria220s a model organism for studying how bacteria capture carbon dioxide,” says Baker. “It has two forms of the enzyme called Rubisco, which is the carbon dioxide removing enzyme. The question is, ‘How does it regulate the production of each form of this enzyme?’

“To answer that question we’re looking at a protein called CbbR, which has several commonalities with other regular proteins. It’s located near the gene for the Form II enzyme. What I want to do is knock out this gene. In genetics, that’s how we often study something. We take the pathway apart. I want to create a mutant that lacks that gene. To do that, I’m simply going to replace the normal gene with the mutated gene. We’ll introduce the mutated gene and they’ll swap places.”

Mutants. Bacteria. It all sounds like science-fiction. But instead it’s very factual. Microbes get a bad rap because most people think microbes are all germs.

“I think bacteria are wonderful,” she says. “My students think I’m crazy when I say that, but they’re wonderfully efficient single-celled organisms. I tell my students all the time that if I were as efficient as a bacterium I would only have to work 2 hours or less every day instead of 10 to 12. I try to get the point across that not all bacteria are bad. Some of them are, but most are not. Most of them do very good things for us.”