Bug biology: Armstrong students analyze insect DNA in effort to study invasive bacterium

Erin McGillen, a psychology major at Armstrong, leans into the microscope and squints to get a closer look at the dead beetle she carefully manipulates in a petri dish with a tiny pair of tweezers.

“Do you think this is Coleoptera?,” she asks her lab partners. “It looks like an immature insect.”

Erin is one of 25 undergraduates in Dr. Traci Ness’s Biology 1107 lab, which analyzes DNA isolated from insects in an effort to study Wolbachia, an invasive bacterium infecting many arthropods. Armstrong students collect and study aquatic and terrestrial insects, getting hands-on experience in one of the university’s Science Center laboratories.

“The overall goal of this research project is to determine if insects collected in the Savannah area contain Wolbachia,” Dr. Ness explains. “Specifically, students work in small research teams to develop an insect collection strategy, collect insects, and analyze selected specimens.”

Students work on one continuous lab project the entire semester, which gives them the opportunity to investigate Wolbachia infection in greater depth and apply the scientific process in an authentic research experience. Ness reports that, to date, more than 900 science and allied health students have participated in the Wolbachia project at Armstrong’s Savannah campus and at the Liberty Center in Hinesville.

Throughout the semester, students get hands-on experience with high-tech lab equipment like centrifuges, nanodrop spectrophotometers, thermocyclers, electrophoresis equipment and gel documentation systems.

“We want students to learn what it is to do ‘real science,’” says Ness. “Right now, there are fewer than 200 professional Wolbachia researchers worldwide. These students are given the opportunity to be Wolbachia researchers for the semester and have the opportunity to contribute new data to this field.”

The National Science Foundation has awarded Armstrong a Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM Grant to support the development of this particular course. The results of the students’ research will be shared with the scientific community.

For undergraduate students like Victoria Broady, a rehabilitation science freshman, the opportunity to get interactive experience in the lab is invaluable.

“This project is interesting to me,” she admits. “Biology in high school wasn’t as in-depth as this. I like how this lab is very hands-on.”

Rehabilitation science major Noelle Thornton agrees.

“I’m enjoying doing a semester-long research project,” she raves. “I can’t wait to see the results!”