Scientist of the Week

April West

Junior Jessica Bonsall is working with Assistant Professor of Biology Ron Peck on a long-term microbiology experiment concerning genetic research on archea, specifically halobacterium and salanerum, which are microorganisms similar to bacteria. They are studying how these organisms change with their environment; specifically for this experiment, the organisms’ reaction to the absence of oxygen. The halobacterium produce a purple protein, called bacteriorhodpsin, which allows it to respire without oxygen present in a process that is similar to photosynthesis but much simpler. “This is important, because if we ever try to use organisms to solve the energy crisis, we could potentially use this organism,” Bonsall explained.
Halobacterium lives in extremely high salt concentrations — they cannot live in the ocean because even there, the salt concentration is not high enough. The organism lives in supersalty places such as the Dead Sea and Utah’s Great Salt Lake, as well as other bodies of water with similar salt concentrations. Other research has shown that if life exists on other planets, it could be similar to this type of organism.
The overall goal of Bonsall’s research with Peck is to determine how living things respond to environmental stress. The environments at first seem static, but, from the viewpoint of a micro-organism, there are vast changes in conditions such as UV-radiation, oxygen levels, and space availability.
“I’m intrigued by the basic biological question of how a seemingly simple organism consisting of one cell (without any internal compartments since it is a prokaryote) can respond to these dramatic changes in its environment,” Professor Peck said.
Bonsall and Professor Peck hope that this experiment will help them to eventually understand the fundamental mechanisms of how molecules function in living organisms. In regards to human health, almost all diseases can be traced to molecules (usually proteins) interacting in some way that is harmful to the patient. By using a simple organism that can easily be manipulated in the laboratory, they hope to gain insight into how molecules interact inside human cells and the pathogens that cause human disease.
Bonsall has worked with Professor Peck on this experiment since last summer and plans to continue the experiment on through next summer. When asked why she switched from her original government major to science, she replied, “I like the hands-on aspect of science, especially in a place like this. Students are able to work on labs from the introductory courses on — even ones that you can design and carry out yourself.”
Jessica hopes to later work in a lab combining marine biology and microbiology. This spring, she will be participating in the Marine Biology Term, during which she will spend two weeks in the Cayman Islands.