The LSU College of Science and School of Veterinary Medicine have launched the LSU Mikereauxbiome Project, a novel instructional and research venture that uses molecular genetic data to define the microorganisms and collective genetic material on LSU’s campus.
This project is the first in a series of undergraduate research activities to contribute new knowledge to our understanding of big cats. The research focuses on identifying gut microbes in tigers and other large cats to develop markers for health. The outcome of the analysis will lead to new information about gut microbes, improved healthcare for managed animals and new strategies for conservation of endangered populations.
“In the last decade, there has been an explosion of microbiome research, but there has not really been a microbiome research effort at LSU,” said Gary King, LSU professor of biological sciences. “This project will provide a broader understanding of microbiology principals and will help students discover knowledge, create knowledge and pass it on.”
King and David Baker, director of LSU’s Laboratory of Animal Medicine and caretaker for Mike the Tiger, LSUs live mascot, co-lead the study, which began this summer and will continue for several years. Other collaborators include the Baton Rouge Zoo, Little Rock Zoo, Columbus Zoo, Safari West, Minnesota Zoological Gardens and Mo Bio Laboratories.
“This collaborative project provides us with an excellent opportunity to move the tiger mascot program to a new level of scholarship and contribution to tiger conservation, in keeping with the role of a great university. While Mike VI is not directly manipulated for the project, his environment is yielding valuable information that will help us to better understand tiger biology,” said Baker.
Last summer, King, along with LSU biology professors J. Cameron Thrash, Ginger Brinninstool and Karen Sullivan, led sampling sessions of Mike VI’s habitat. Students enrolled in general microbiology were divided into small sampling teams to participate in sample design and collect microbiomes outside and inside of Mike VI’s habitat when Mike was not in his enclosure. The teams took water and soil samples and were given access to Mike’s scat for sampling.
This mostly-student driven project, expands on the concepts taught in general microbiology creating an integrative course that incorporates bioinformatics, statistics and general ecology to provide a more meaningful and impactful learning experience.
“The goal of this project is to provide a research-embedded classroom experience that allows students to get involved in research activities early in their academic career,” said Cynthia Peterson, dean of the College of Science and Seola Arnaud and Richard Vernon Edwards Jr. Professor. “This experience defines what it means to attend a research university, and we want to make sure that these opportunities are available to all students.”
To date, more than 100 undergraduate students have participated in the project. These students learned how to extract and process DNA, analyze DNA sequences, use high-performance computing and communicate their results to the public. The students will be able to follow the research even after completing their coursework and subsequent classes will be able to build upon the work of previous classes.
“For many of these students, this is their first research experience,” said King. “This activity better connects students to research and the content taught in class. It also opens the students’ eyes to the variety of career paths available to science majors.”
Anna Suydam, a junior biology major who participated on one the sampling teams last summer, has been helping to analyze the data collected.
“To be completely honest, before this project, I did not know what microbiome was,” said Suydam. But, after helping to develop the project, I gained a better understanding of microbiome and its impact on all biology. It has been very exciting to be at the forefront of a new brand of research.”
Suydam and some of her fellow students, along with King, set up a poster presentation outside of Mike’s habitat before LSU’s game against Texas A&M on November 28. The goal of the presentation was to share information about the Mikereauxbiome Project with the community. More than 1,000 Tiger (and possibly some A&M) fans stopped by the presentation.
“I expected a lot less interest,” said Suydam. “It was great to see that people loved big cats and we enjoyed talking with them about our research.”
Aside from informing the public about the microbiomes of large cats, another goal of the project is to provide information that can be used to better manage large cats in captivity and the wild. This effort is directly facilitated and inspired by Mike VI. In addition to Mike, the project includes comparison or data sets from a broad group of animals, including tigers, cheetahs and jaguars of different genders, ages and locations. Suydam and her sampling team wrapped up their analysis of the cheetah samples this semester. She hopes that this experience will make her more attractive to medical programs after graduation.
“Medical schools value your nonmedical research experiences as well as your medical-related work,” said Suydam. “I hope that my participation in such a large-scale and diverse research experience will make me more attractive to medical schools. ”
Outcomes of the research will be incorporated into various web-based educational platforms with initial results available early 2016. This information will be maintained in an information database of large cats and will be used to develop a tool kit to assess a tiger’s state of health. This spring the Mikereauxbiome team will have an even larger data set to examine, including samples from a pygmy hippopotamus, zebras, antelopes, bison, elk, deer, giraffe and even rhinos.
King anticipates that the Mikereauxbiome Project will continue to grow and gain enough momentum to spark an across campus microbiome analysis.
“Everything has microbiome. There is no creature of any kind that has no bacteria associated with it,” said King. “In the care of humans and animals, our microbiome has a lot to do with who we are. It is important that students understand this connection. We live on a plant of microbes. They are in us and on us. They are affecting us directly, indirectly, negatively and positively. This project allows our students to be immersed in this understanding.”
Overall, King sees this project as a creative and engaging way to expose students to research and to educate the community about the benefits of having a research university like LSU in Louisiana.
“We want to create a better understanding of what a research university is about, what makes us different and why we are so important to the state,” said King. “Providing enriching educational opportunities is what we are all about.”