What’s the most abundant life form on the planet, accounting for half the biomass? If you guessed something too small to see even with the aid of a microscope, you guessed right. “Bacteria are all over the place, even in boiling water,” said Timothy Gsell, Professor of environmental microbiology at Governors State University(GSU) and coordinator for biology degree programs, including the Bachelor of Science and the Environmental Biology, Management, and Policy Master of Science.
Microbiology has seen enormous changes in the span of Gsell’s career. One of the most significant is the emergence of metagenomics, the study of genetic material recovered directly from an environmental sample. “For instance, to find out if there are Asian carp in Lake Michigan, look for its DNA in water samples. It’s true for fish and it’s also true for bacteria,” Gsell said. “I can get hundreds of thousands of bacterial species identified and describe their relative abundance with metagenomics data from one DNA sample. Twenty years ago, I’d have to grow cells from each species individually and analyze their DNA one at a time. Metagenomics was a revolution.”
During his 19-year tenure at GSU, Gsell has received University Research Grants along with National Science Foundation funding for scientific equipment, teacher laboratory training workshops, and the Biology Research Lab construction portion of GSU’s lab renovation project in 2015. Currently, Gsell is finishing up a 2003 study to examine the evolution of bacteria in the Shedd Aquarium’s popular Wild Reef.
GSU Newsroom: Tell us more about GSU’s project with the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.
Gsell: I work with ammonia oxidizing bacteria, which all aquaria need to keep the fish alive. When the Shedd added the Wild Reef shark tank exhibit in the 2003, a GSU graduate student who volunteered at the aquarium did a molecular study over 80 weeks, collecting samples and extracting DNA each week as they turned Lake Michigan water into simulated Philippine Sea water. They had all the salts to artificially produce it, but it’s not just the salt that makes sea water, it’s the living components—the bacteria, and other microbes. Everything that lives in there has to be right, or the fish will die.
The fish live in the system and their waste has to be removed. But you don’t remove it chemically, you remove it biologically. The filters are live biofilms, a very special group of bacteria that don’t cause any disease. You rely on them to do their thing. We collected samples from all over the aquarium.
Recently I sent 200 DNA samples from those original 80 weeks to Argonne National Labs for metagenomics sequencing and analysis. They’re going to send back the data this fall that will give me the entire picture of microbial diversity and how it changed over the 80 weeks throughout the Shedd’s water and filtration systems as the Wild Reef microbiome developed.
GSU Newsroom: Why is this important?
Gsell: The bacteria that take part in ammonia oxidation do not grow well in lab, so very few microbiologists were able to study them until molecular techniques became available in the 90s. Other large aquaria had lost fish due to a pump failure and temperature changes that caused these bacteria to crash.
The Shedd’s Wild reef was set up in 2003-04, and nobody knew where in the system or which species of bacteria were responsible for this nitrogen cleanup in aquaria. It wanted to know because it cost millions to get and keep all the fish and, especially the sharks, alive.
This is potentially groundbreaking, pending results and analysis. We could change how large aquaria operate, or how new ones are set up.
GSU Newsroom: Is microbiology always about cleaning up?
Gsell: No. It started with medicine, treating disease. People cared about death, crops failing, and industrial products ruined by microbes. The focus was on which organism causes which disease or problem and how to get rid of it. The understanding of how good things can happen from bacteria came much later.
Now we’re looking at a shift in thought where it’s not one organism and one disease. It’s about your body as an ecosystem for that organism and how it interacts with it and other microbiome residents. Probiotics can help prevent disease. That means good bacteria can potentially stop the pathogenic bacteria causing disease in some cases.
GSU Newsroom: How is medicine changing due to microbiology?
Gsell: Scientists are looking to see if they can use a virus to treat a bacterial infection as opposed to drugs like antibiotics. Viruses can kill off certain host bacterial species. The Russians have been using this method for years. But then you have to be careful and know your DNA integration mechanism because some viruses can also cause cancer or have a number of other negative impacts on the host.
GSU Newsroom: Why aren’t bacteria always dangerous for human beings?
Gsell: We all have a soup can’s worth of bacteria that are keeping us healthy, mostly in our guts. There are a small minority of bacteria that tend to kill people because they are true pathogens and have a penchant for getting into your body and causing damage. In the environment, many bacteria feed on stuff that would kill us. Toxic chemicals for us may be food for these microbes. For example, they can protect our drinking water from contamination due to chemical spills by essentially eating these molecules.
GSU Newsroom: What excites you about the future of microbiology?
Gsell: Like other scientists, microbiologists find themselves partnering more and more with scientists in other disciplines. Microbiology is good because it touches all the fields. It’s virtually unlimited. You can study microbes from any environment and find out something new that a lot of people have never heard of or seen or even thought of.