CBS Joins Tiny Earth Network

Posted on Monday, July 12th, 2021

Written by College of Biological Science

As we continue to navigate through the global threat of antibiotic resistance, students and academics across the world have begun to tackle this challenge by taking part in a project called Tiny Earth.

The Tiny Earth network aims to address the diminishing source of effective antibiotics by encouraging studentsourcing antibiotic discovery. It gives students an opportunity to participate in research while inspiring them to pursue science as a career.

The University of Guelph chapter of the Tiny Earth project is co-led by Dr. Emma Allen-Vercoe, Canada Research Chair and Professor within the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Amanda van der Vinne, Undergraduate Lab Coordinator within the same department.

We spoke with Amanda to learn more about the Tiny Earth course offering within the College of Biological Science.

Q: What exactly is the Tiny Earth project?

A: Tiny Earth is a network of instructors and students focused on ‘studentsourcing’ novel antibiotics from soil. The idea is to increase the potential of finding novel antibiotics by engaging students in the hard up-front work of isolating and characterizing, from soil samples, bacterial strains with antibiotic production potential. At the same time, our undergraduate students get hands-on experience of discovery research with real potential benefits and learn a lot about soil microbiology along the way.

Q: What led you to become involved?

A: We recently made the decision to redevelop the MICR*3430 Advanced Methods in Microbiology course to update it and make it as inspiring and as useful as possible for our students, and we wanted to incorporate more of a discovery research approach to the course rather than traditional ‘cookbook’ type labs. The Tiny Earth program was suggested to us by faculty member Dr. Georgina Cox, who worked as a postdoc in the laboratory of Dr. Gerry Wright before coming to Guelph, a lab that was very familiar with the Tiny Earth program of antibiotic discovery.

Q: What’s your role in the project?

A: Emma is the course coordinator, and I am the lab coordinator. I have actually had the opportunity to attend the Tiny Earth training courses to become a Tiny Earth Partner Instructor, which allows me to keep connected to the program and its growing community of scientists. Together, we have tried to incorporate as many of the Tiny Earth ideas as possible into the course, while also enhancing the U of G experience by including soil sampling sites from across Canada and tying in genome sequencing analysis of soil microbial isolates. For the inaugural (virtual) offering of this course, we have tried to maximize student handling of real research data while not being allowed to physically be present in the lab.

Q: Have you received any student feedback?

A: So far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Students are generally very engaged in learning when they understand that their efforts could positively contribute to the fight against antimicrobial resistance. And since we are engaged in discovery research, none of us, including the teaching team, know ahead of class time what we will find – and that is exciting!

Q: What are you looking forward to?

A: Although this inaugural offering of the Tiny Earth-themed program at U of G has been virtual, we have still managed to work with data from soil isolates from coast-to-coast with the help of our very talented TA team. The students have worked hard during the semester and their culminating assignments, in the form of posters and short presentations, have really reflected this effort. We selected some of the best posters for their authors to present at the Tiny Earth Symposium, giving these students an opportunity to interact with their peers and the Tiny Earth network of instructors on an international platform, and to show off their hard work.

Looking ahead, we hope to expand antibiotic discovery across the microbiology discipline from the second to fourth year, so students can work with their isolates throughout their undergraduate training; from the initial isolation in a second-year course to a capstone independent project in fourth year. And we have already started the process of collecting soil samples from far and wide across Canada to support next year’s course!

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U of G students can contribute to the Tiny Earth database and can look forward to partaking in the search for new antibiotics while enrolled in MICR 3430, where they will have the opportunity to choose one out of the ten soil samples being collected across Canada, and what isolate they hope to study. Individually and in groups, students will study the diversity in their samples, search for an antibiotic producer, and have access to bioinformatics tools.

For more information, visit our website.

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