Local professor, student join initiative to fight shortage of new antibiotics

Luther College is joining the push to mitigate one of the most critical public health crises facing the world, according to the World Health Organization and Center for Disease Control and Prevention: antibiotic resistance via development of a new research-based lab course by Jodi Enos-Berlage, Luther professor of biology, and a summer research collaboration between Enos-Berlage and Martel DenHartog, Luther senior majoring in neuroscience.

Enos-Berlage recently took part in a week-long training, to enable Luther to join—and Enos-Berlage to become a partner instructor in—the Tiny Earth network, a program founded by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Jo Handelsman. Tiny Earth has a two-fold mission: to encourage students to pursue careers in science through real-world laboratory and field research in introductory courses, and to address a worldwide health threat–the diminishing supply of effective antibiotics–by tapping into the collective power of many student researchers concurrently tackling the same challenge, living up to Tiny Earth's motto, "studentsourcing antibiotic discovery."

To achieve these goals, the initiative leverages a network of partner institutions where instructors learn the curriculum and integrate the research protocols in their lab-based courses at universities and colleges. Enos-Berlage has also integrated the project into her summer undergraduate research program. Tiny Earth's student scientists, some who are experiencing the scientific method in action for the first time, hunt for novel antibiotic-producing microorganisms from their local soil samples. Students then characterize, identify, and study these microbes that have the potential to contribute to the discovery of new antibiotics.

Tiny Earth is a global and growing network; in 2017 the program added 40 new partner institutions. The community of instructors now encompasses 14 countries and 40 US states.

Enos-Berlage and DenHartog's involvement is part of the initiative’s commitment to engage schools, colleges, departments and aspiring scientists across the country. This summer, under Enos-Berlage's direction, DenHartog isolated more than 20 antibiotic-producing microbes from four distinct NE Iowa soils; these microbes are currently being characterized. This work was done in part to prepare for the implementation of this research-based project into Enos-Berlage's fall microbiology lab course.

From July 16-20, Enos-Berlage joined 24 instructors from institutions across the United States, along with one instructor from Nigeria, in an intensive five-day training at the University of Connecticut. "Tiny Earth's newest batch of partner instructors are an inspiring cohort of researchers and educators already bringing fresh ideas to Tiny Earth's core mission of engaging undergraduate and high school students in real discovery," says Tiny Earth Science and Training Director Nichole Broderick.  Broderick is an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut. 

The program is partnering with institutions reflecting the diversity of the United States. The training included instructors from institutions located in both urban and rural areas, e.g., University of Texas-Dallas and Luther College, respectively; four Hispanic serving institutions, Austin Community College in Texas, Brazosport College in Texas, Vanguard University in California, and New Mexico State University; and one Historically Black University, Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. "A diversity of student scientists, like a diversity of soil samples, only enhances Tiny Earth's discovery potential and impact," says Broderick.

A national liberal arts college with an enrollment of 2,050, Luther offers an academic curriculum that leads to the Bachelor of Arts degree in more than 60 majors and pre-professional programs. For more information about Luther visit the college's website: http://www.luther.edu.

Jodi Enos-Berlage, left, and Martel Den Hartog, right, use a soil corer to collect soil from Anderson Prairie on the Luther Campus.