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Cassandra Harris talks to Ryan Arsenault about her work studying fish gut microbes.
Cassandra Harris talks to Ryan Arsenault about her work studying fish gut microbes.

Microbial Systems Symposium

Photo by Adam Thomas

UD holds sixth annual Microbial Systems Symposium

Much like the microbes they study in the world—which can be found anywhere from oceans to human skin cells—microbial researchers are spread out pretty much everywhere at the University of Delaware.

Because of this, the Microbial Systems Symposium plays an integral role in bringing together the microbial scientific community at UD to keep researchers up to date on the latest findings, techniques and tools available at the University.

This year’s symposium was held on Saturday, Feb. 10 in Townsend Hall.

Robin Morgan, interim provost, said that the event is a great way for faculty, graduate students and others to learn about the recent advances in microbiology at UD.

“The day-long event catalyzes collaborations and helps groups invested in microbiology appreciate the depth and breadth of efforts all across the UD campus. An added plus is that students gain valuable experience in presenting short talks and posters,” Morgan said.

Jennifer Biddle, associate professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment (CEOE), said the symposium is a great way to advance new research collaborations.

“Every year through this symposium we come together to see what other people are doing, share expertise and cultivate a community of microbiologists,” Biddle said. “Microbes are everywhere. Because there’s a very large clinical and applied aspect as well as an ecological aspect, you naturally fall into different places. We’re spread out across all these different disciplines and yet we’re asking very similar questions and using, more importantly, similar techniques.”

Biddle co-organized this year’s symposium with Amy Biddle, assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences.

The symposium included a keynote speaker from the region, Elizabeth Grice, assistant professor in the Department of Dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania. Derrick Scott, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Delaware State University, also presented.

“We’re getting bigger and we’re trying to make this more regional with this idea that the methodologies are all shared and we’re all within a few hours of each other,” Jennifer Biddle said.

Poster presentations

Undergraduate and graduate students had a chance to present their research to those in attendance during a morning and afternoon poster session.

Cassandra Harris, a master’s level student in marine studies, is studying fish gut microbes. She’s looking at the differences between an herbivore (plant eater), a carnivore (meat eater) and an invertivore (eater of crabs, etc.) and how changes to their diets also change the gut microbiome.

The herbivores she is studying are Yellow Tangs, the invertivores are Lagoon Triggerfish and the carnivores are Dwarf Hawkfish.

Harris said that fish give off specific chemical cues with regards to their scent based on what they eat which aides in predator avoidance in prey fish.

“We are manipulating the diets of the herbivore and the invertivore to that of a carnivore and seeing how their chemical cue changes,” Harris said.

After running trials, Harris said that the researchers saw that the cues of the herbivore and invertivore changed to that of a carnivore because prey fish are avoiding them even though they aren't predators.

“We think that the gut microbes may be causing this change. Gut microbes are highly dependent on the diet of the host and the microbiome shifts when the diet is changed. The end goal is to hopefully identify the metabolism within the gut microbes that is causing the change in chemical cues given off by the fish,” said Harris.

As an undergraduate, Harris worked with behaviors in the common bottlenose dolphin and wanted to try something different as a graduate student.

With Biddle as her advisor, Harris got interested in gut microbes.

“They’re not the most glamorous but I like the techniques I’m learning with bioinformatics and so that’s the real draw,” Harris said.

Lingyi Wu, a doctoral student in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) who works in the lab of Eric Wommack, deputy dean of CANR, talked about her research that focuses on viruses of microbes, specifically looking at a hypothetical device that would allow for a more time efficient, low-cost way to study these viruses.

“We have tons of viruses in the ocean and most of the viruses use bacteria as their host but the viruses are very small. We can’t just grab them and study them,” Wu said. “Usually, we observe the viruses under a microscope but it is very small if you want to see how they behave and it is time consuming and expensive to get a fancy microscope. We propose to build a microfluidic device and to put all of your bacteria and viruses into it.”

Award winners included:

Best student talks: Nathan MacDonald, who works in the Fidelma Boyd lab, Delicious but Dangerous: Unique sugars biosynthesized by bacteria; Kaliopi Bousses, a master’s level student in CEOE who works in the Jennifer Biddle lab, Microbial succession in a sulfur-oxidizing mat; and Michael Pavia, a master’s level student in the College of Arts and Sciences who works in the lab of Clara Chan, associate professor in CEOE, Colonization and S(0) Mineralization of Sulfur Oxidizing Biofilms in the Frasassi Cave System.

Best poster presentations: Amelia Harrison, a master’s level student in CEOE working with Wommack, Ribonucleotide reductase provides insight into marine virioplankton communities; Rebecca Vandzura, a master’s level student in CEOE who is working with Chan, Bacteriophage roles in hydrothermal vent iron mats: a metagenomic analysis; and Cassandra Harris, who is working with Jennifer Biddle, Identifying Hindgut Microbes in Ctenochaetus striatus and Calotomus spinidens: Comparing Community Composition, Function, and Identifying Genomes Through Metagenomics.

Support for the symposium was provided by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Department of Plant and Soil Sciences and Animal and Food Sciences), the College of Arts and Sciences (Department of Biology), the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, the College of Engineering (Departments of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering) and the Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN). Betty Cowgill, academic support coordinator in the Department of Biological Sciences and Grace Wisser, CANR event coordinator, both assisted in putting together the event.

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