Bio-prospecting in Beetles

Students grind beetle digestive tracts during a microbiology class. Photo by Ellen Green.

Forest Service Grant Supports Undergraduate Research

Funding from the U.S. Forest Service certainly served its purpose of enhancing undergraduate research at Delta State University (DSU) in Cleveland, Mississippi.

Almost 3 years ago, Tanya McKinney and Ellen Green, associate professors of biology at DSU, started brainstorming a project to give science undergraduates research experience in the fields of microbiology and entomology. They knew they would have to look for outside funding.

Around that time, May 2010, the Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) sent out a request for proposals for research studies or training opportunities for students and faculty from under-represented institutions.

“We were very fortunate to get two year’s funding from the SRS Partnership Enhancement Initiative grant,” Green said. “It allowed us to design a research experience that we could incorporate into the classroom and reach as many students as possible.” Green and McKinney worked closely with Nathan Schiff, research entomologist with the SRS Center for Bottomland Hardwoods Research in nearby Stoneville, Mississippi.  

Eric Goldberg splits log in search of beetle larvae. Photo by Ellen Green.

As part of their research experience, students in the program “bio-prospect” in the guts of beetle larvae to discover new cellulases, enzymes that break down cellulose, a major component of plant cell walls.

“They crack open logs and extract beetle larvae that they then dissect. They’re looking for the microbes in the larval digestive tract that make cellulases,” Green said. “Though beetle larvae feed on wood, they don’t actually have the enzymes to digest it, so they rely on microbes.”

Used in the paper and pulp industry, cellulases are showing promise in the fermentation of woody biomass into biofuels, although this process is still in the experimental stage.

“If we find new cellulases that are even a little more efficient,” Green said, “that would be a big deal.”

McKinney said the experience the students receive is invaluable. “Students get to experience what real scientists do on an everyday basis,” she said. “Instead of just reading about it or watching demonstrations, they actually get to do it.”

McKinney’s microbiology class and Green’s entomology class ran the project together. “As a result, Dr. McKinney’s microbiology students picked up some entomology,” Green said. “And my entomology students picked up some microbiology skills.”   

Beetle larvae found. Photo by Ellen Green.

Schiff participated in classes and attended scientific meetings with project students. “They were quite enthusiastic and seemed to be getting an understanding of the scientific method,” said Schiff. “They seem more advanced than I was at this stage, and I expect that some of them will turn to a career in research.”

 Adapted from December 12 article in the Bolivar County, MS, Cleveland Current.

 For more information, email Nathan Schiff at nschiff@fs.fed.us.

Awarded in 2010, the SRS Partnership Enhancement Initiative grants were designed to increase opportunities for minorities in the natural resources field and expand the pool of candidates interested in federal employment with the U.S. Forest Service.

 Access the latest publications by SRS scientists.

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Posted in Biomass and Bioenergy, Bottomland Hardwoods