Small wonders, big potential

UD microbiology graduate program unleashes the power of tiny creatures

In life, some of nature’s most fearsome creatures and most helpful friends are with us all the time. They are everywhere around us, and even inside of us, happily living their microbial dreams. 

To most people, these cleverly cohabitating critters are nearly impossible to see, uncomfortable to contemplate and completely misunderstood. To the students and professors of the University of Delaware interdisciplinary microbiology graduate program, the mystery is part of the allure: They sense the outsized potential of our littlest neighbors, and they believe a big payoff is not far out of reach.

Scholars from across five colleges and 13 departments at UD are joining in a great wave of scientific excitement over the “superpowers” of bacteria, viruses and other microbial denizens. For now, it’s a quiet sort of revolution. But it’s a quest that ultimately could help everyone everywhere, in ways no one has yet imagined: Diseases can be cured, pollution mitigated, famine eased.

The interdisciplinary approach of UD’s microbiology graduate program was a big appeal for doctoral students Austin Morgan (left) and Rene Hoover. Photos by Lisa Walenceus, Photo illustration by Cindy Dolan

In the spotlessly purposeful labs of UD’s Science, Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) Campus, teams are already working to cultivate these nano-sized abilities, or even engineer new ones. Inside the sleek Ammon Pinizzotto Biopharmaceutical Innovation Center, students in the lab of Mark Blenner, associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, are working to create bacteria that can recycle plastics, or produce therapeutic compounds, or even serve as early warning networks for soldiers.

It’s a great time to be part of a groundbreaking moment, and UD is an ideal place to join the journey, said Clara Chan, who with Nicole Donofrio helped launch the Graduate College microbiology program for both master’s and doctoral candidates.

If you can understand the diversity of microbes and their abilities, you have this enormous palette from which to choose,” said Chan, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “You might decide, ‘Oh, I want that ability, but I want it in a different place, or in a different situation. So I’m going to take that ability from this one microbe, put it in another microbe and create a new and better and more functional system.’”

At UD, that effort is leveraged in crucial ways by cross-departmental collaboration — through a deliberate recognition that it takes more than microbiologists to fully understand the microbiome’s scope and potential. UD’s interdisciplinary microbiology program is bolstered by scholars from fields as disparate as health to agriculture to the environment.

At UD, I think our particular strength is we really deeply understand how microbes work in their native environments: in soil, groundwater, hydrothermal vents, the Chesapeake Bay, even concrete,” Chan said. “And so we have a solid knowledge of these multiple abilities, these multiple genetic resources, from studying them as they adapt to all these different environments.”

UD’s expertise also is enhanced by the key industry entities it hosts on campus, including the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL), the Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN) and the Delaware Biotechnology Institute (DBI).

By leaning into that foundation, and then embracing diverse academic perspectives, the microbiology graduate program becomes a place where a wider variety of prospective students can contribute their own insights, and find a niche that suits their skills. 

The microbiology program has a really good culture,” said Rene Hoover, a fifth-year doctoral student in the program. “I feel like the students, the principal investigators, have made it feel very welcoming. It’s very diverse, in all aspects — our backgrounds, our knowledge.”

Missouri native Austin Morgan was on his way to becoming a pediatrician when bioengineering captured his fascination. Soon he was working in labs, helping to engineer cells, but knew he needed to bolster his skills with a solid bioengineering program. 

But there was a problem: He sensed that math-heavy research wouldn’t be his strongest suit, so he struggled to see how he could have a real impact. 

I lack a lot of the formal engineering education that the professors often expect, so I had to look at a lot of programs to find something that might be a good fit,” the doctoral candidate said. 

He Googled “synthetic biology,” ran across NIIMBL and soon found himself joining one of UD’s most ambitious scholarly groups: the Cellular Engineering and Applied Synthetic Biology Lab. Under Blenner’s guidance, he conceived a unique approach to one nagging problem: how to “turn off” bacteria that the military is hoping to use as early warning sensors.

I basically came in with no idea of what I’d be working on, and we found something totally new because I came in with this new perspective,” he said. “I think that’s super exciting, and a testament to Professor Blenner to even allow students to come in and let them kind of chase down a creative idea. It’s not always like that in every school or every program.”

It is like that at UD, and for good reasons. 

“When you have a diverse workforce in your lab, coming from different backgrounds, they can pull from different programs and abilities,” said Donofrio, a professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. “They can pull from engineering programs; they can pull from biology and other programs. I think that is key to solving these bigger issues.”

At UD, those solutions are already starting to appear. Lab work is now underway on how to inhibit fungi that can damage crops, how to turn human refuse into helpful chemicals, how to harvest precious metals from the minerals excreted by bacteria — all by engineering (and enlisting) the power of individual cells.

It was that environmental focus that appealed to Hoover. 

I wanted an opportunity to study microbiology, but I wanted to focus a little more on environmental microbiology. It was hard to find a program that fit that niche I was looking for, and UD offered a great opportunity to do that,” she said. “UD has the computers and the capability and the ability to do bioinformatics that just weren’t possible 20 years ago. It’s exciting, because the science has come really far in a very short time.”

Already, real-world applications that once seemed fanciful are now within reach, and momentum seems certain to build in the years ahead. Job openings for microbiologists are expected to increase faster than average (9%) through 2031, and the state of Delaware has solid potential to be part of the growth: Among states with the highest microbiology employment levels in the U.S., four are relatively close to UD: Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey and New York, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Biotechnology is something that the state of Delaware is really interested in investing in,” Chan said. “Students need to know the fundamentals of microbiology in order to manipulate and design microbes, and that’s where we come in.”

For more information on the interdisciplinary microbiology graduate program, visit udel.edu/grad/microbiology.

Article by Eric Ruth

*Source: University of Delaware

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