BOZEMAN — In a hot spring-filled corner of Yellowstone National Park that’s miles from the nearest road, elk bugled on crisp September mornings as a dozen Montana State University undergraduates kicked off a memorable science project.

During their multi-day visit to the remote Heart Lake Geyser Basin, the students measured the temperature, acidity and other characteristics of colorful hot springs and collected small samples of the water to analyze in a lab back on the MSU campus. Their goal: to find microbes that, by being adapted to the extreme environment, may be able to break down plastic into usable chemicals.

“This is really unique experience in a place that not a lot of other people see,” said Dana Skorupa, assistant research professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, who co-led the trip. “It gives students an authentic introduction to research, from collecting samples in the field to working in the lab and then presenting their results at the end of the semester.”

As part of a class called Extreme Microbiology in Yellowstone, students in MSU’s Honors College have ventured into the national park at Bozeman’s back door over the past several years for a taste of backcountry adventure and immersion in the scientific process.

Konrad Renner, a sophomore majoring in microbiology, didn’t know what to expect from the trip, but it turned out to be "a really cool experience,” he said. "Going to these thermal areas, you can see why people thought for so long that they were devoid of life. But then sampling them and finding organisms, it’s really phenomenal.”

The students are likely the first people to ever sample some the thermal features, according to Skorupa, a researcher in MSU’s Center for Biofilm Engineering, which has a long history of studying Yellowstone’s so-called thermophiles. “There’s an element of discovery,” she said. Among the microbes that scientists have found in Yellowstone are Thermus aquaticus, the heat-resistant bacteria used in PCR testing to detect pathogens such as COVID-19, and the Fusarium strain flavolapis, a fungus discovered by an MSU doctoral student that’s now being developed into a protein-rich food that could one day feed astronauts. So, there’s a distinct chance the students could find the plastic-degrading microbes theorized to inhabit the hot pools, she said.

During the remainder of the semester, the students will study whether the microbes they found will grow on different types of plastic, which would warrant a detailed biochemical analysis. The students, mostly sophomores, present their findings at the end of the semester to representatives of Battelle, the global research and development organization that is covering the travel and lab expenses for the class plus providing funding for hiring up to two undergraduate researchers who can work on the project more intensely.

"The whole class is a seamless integration of education and research," said Brent Peyton, director of MSU’s Thermal Biology Institute and professor of chemical and biological engineering, who co-teaches the field trip portion of the class with Skorupa.

The class received support from Battelle, a nonprofit research institution based in Columbus, Ohio, through funding from its STEM program, its charitable contribution and expertise. During the sampling event, Battelle principal research scientist Fadime Kara Murdoch, from the chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear (CBRNE) biology team supported MSU with hands-on and scientific guidance. Battelle’s CBRNE biology team is interested in bio-based methods of breaking down and upcycling waste plastic, into products useful to a soldier during long term and remote missions, Kara Murdoch explained. In addition to support from the Thermal Biology Institute and Battelle, the class received a generous donation from a private local businessman, Peyton said.

“This course is a great example of the opportunities afforded to undergraduates through our research centers like the CBE and TBI,” said Matthew Fields, director of the Center for Biofilm Engineering, who helped with field sampling on the trip. “We are excited to partner with Battelle and promote undergraduate experience in applying laboratory fundamentals to real-world challenges.”

Rory Swoboda, a sophomore majoring in fish and wildlife management, said that besides being fun, the class is giving her experience that will help her in pursuits outside of microbiology. “I think the science communications we’re learning will be a valuable skill that I can use in whatever kind of work I do,” she said. “It’s cool we get to have such a hands-on experience.”

Peyton said that in his years of going on the field trips, he’s noticed its positive impact on students. “It gets students engaged and boosts their enthusiasm, which helps them stick with their studies through graduation,” he said. "We're a unique university in that this sort of undergraduate research experience is really prized.”

- by Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service -

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