Exploring microbial life in Iceland

Last summer, UMassD students spent two weeks investigating microbial life in Iceland.

Investigating microbial life in Iceland: students collecting samples on the shore
The student researchers spent three days collecting samples from remote beaches and other environments on the island’s north side.

Soil, water, and rock are alive with bacteria, and last summer UMass Dartmouth students spent two weeks investigating microbial life in Iceland.

Mark Silby, associate professor of biology, and teaching assistant and PhD student, Lucy McCully, led the students on a research expedition with faculty and students from the University of Reading, in England; Universidad EAFIT, in Colombia; and the University of Akureyri, in Iceland.

DNA sequencing & experiments in bacterial functions

They spent three days collecting samples from remote beaches and other environments on the island’s north side. They then went into the lab to isolate and identify bacteria. They performed DNA sequencing and conducted experiments to determine how the bacteria function and respond to nutrients.

Because bacteria are so diverse, students had the chance to culture new organisms. Even if the bacteria they found were just slightly different from specimens already identified, “the students knew in their hearts that they were new and they embraced that idea of discovery,” Silby said.

Iceland microbial study: isolating and identifying bacteria in the lab

Alternating learning destinations between Iceland and the tropics

This was the second straight year that Silby’s students conducted research abroad. In the summer of 2015, a group went to Colombia, hosted by EAFIT and the Universidad de Antioquia. There, they joined an effort to protect the country’s banana crop. Bananas, which are an important Colombian export, are susceptible to fungal pathogens. Scientists are eager to develop a biological control using anti-fungal properties in naturally occurring bacteria that grow with bananas and in various other tropical climates. Promising samples cultured by students were frozen for later investigation by scientists.

Silby plans to offer this two-week course every summer, alternating between Iceland and a tropical location. He said student learning on the trips is not limited to microbes.

“It is a multicultural and science expedition,” Silby said. “We learn everywhere. Anything the students talk about becomes a cultural growing experience.”

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