Southern student working on Earth-saving bacteria

Carl Castro – Special to the Southern News 

From filing papers to inoculating plants, Aileen Ferraro, senior biology major at Southern, is now in the process of genetically engineering a bacteria that can potentially save the Earth. She would have never been able to do it without meeting Dr. Elizabeth Roberts, biology professor at Southern.

“It took me forever to decide what I wanted to do. I went to Gateway for environmental science and toxicology, then I wanted to be a massage therapist, then I decided I wanted to go to med-school and become a doctor,” said Ferraro. “Then I met Dr. Roberts and said ‘Nope this is it, this is what I want to do.’ and it’s been a windy road to get to where I am.”

In the spring of 2012, Ferraro says she was going through a work-study program in the biology main office. What she thought was going to be a typical day of photocopying documents, later turned into the day Roberts offered her a chance to volunteer at the microbial ecology lab for the summer.

“Aileen just helped out other students and learned a lot by helping out,” said Roberts.

Ferraro says she’s worked around the lab whenever possible and eventually started working on her own research projects. Since the summer of 2013, she has been experimenting with bacteria that can possibly remove pollutants from the environment.

Based on Roberts’ research, Ferraro says there are four types of bacteria that live on grass. These bacteria eat away at fungus and the chemicals it secretes. Ferraro is currently conducting experiments to replicate the same kind of bacteria to eliminate chemical pollutants from plants.

“What you would do,” said Ferarro, “Is plant the grass, spray on the bacteria or put it in the soil, and then the bacteria will be able to out-compete all the other bacteria that live in the soil, so that they’re the one’s that survive and they’re the ones that clean up all the chemical pollutants.”

In the center of the experiment is a chemical pollutant called atrazine. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, atrazine is used as an herbicide to kill broadleaf weeds in agricultural applications. It’s the most commonly used herbicide in the United States and is typically used on corn and grain crops by Midwest farmers.

Although it’s a commonly used pesticide, research has shown that it can have some detrimental effects on the environment. In April 2003, Tyrone Hayes, biology professor at University of California Berkeley, conducted an experiment that involved the use of atrazine and the affects it can have on frogs.

Hayes and his team exposed atrazine to dozens of frogs in the lab and in a natural environment. Tests have shown that males undergoing the metamorphous stage, when a tadpole matures into a frog, are sensitive to atrazine. It can decrease testosterone levels, increase estrogen, change the male into a female, thus disrupting population levels.

Ferraro’s research has gained attention from the American Society of Microbiologists. She recently won a national Undergraduate Capstone Research Award and will be presenting her research in May at the general assembly in Boston.

Andrea Rosales, program assistant for the American Society of Microbiologists, says it’s the 114th  annual general assembly. Last year’s assembly held over 3,000 presenters, and is likely to see those numbers again this May.

“This can help accelerate her career so when she’s ready to apply to graduate school, maybe she’ll talk to some professionals and she’ll know who they are and the programs they’re in,” said Roberts. “Rather than reading about it, she’ll be able to meet them and they’ll meet her.”

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