Periodic synthetic biology and research-related webinars
We regularly conducted webinars for undergraduate students at Korea University to discuss the overall contents of synthetic biology such as definition or related studies with our research this year. Since the study of synthetic biology is still unfamiliar in Korea, it was a valuable time to introduce and publicize its contents. We will continue to make efforts to further revitalize the webinar so that it can encompass more diverse students beyond Korea University.
The first webinar discussed the basic definition and actual case of synthetic biology with this year's project. As participants from various majors are gathered to analyze our topics and learn synthetic biology, we were able to gain insight into breaking the stationary framework. The most crucial discussion topic was regarding Kill Switch, and we were so inspired to make the participants understand those concepts with mutual development by gaining insights. Whenever research progresses and develops, we decided to share it with the participants and promised to add opinions together.
A. Interview with Edgardo Griffth: the Director & Founder of EVACC foundation
At 8 a.m. on October 9, 2021, KUAS held an open seminar with Mr. Griffith, EVACC Foundation representative, who strives to preserve endangered amphibians of Panama. Along with KUAS members and other participants, we were able to ask questions about his amazing conservation project. We were very excited to meet him since his story was the inspiration of our project. About how our project started, see Description.
Mr. Griffith has been interested in biology since he was young, so he majored in microbiology and parasitology in college. While only conducting research in the laboratory, he went to the field trip in 2000 and met amphibians. Since then he completely changed the direction of the study. Thanks to his original major, he was able to better understand the pathogen related to amphibians.
EVACC initially dealt with more than 50 species of amphibians, but now it is focusing on eight species and conducting conservation activities. Among them, the two core species are Atelopus zeteki (Panamanian golden toad) and Atelopus varius (Harlequin toad). The association's ultimate goal is to preserve nature through environmental education beyond the preservation of amphibians. Through the seminar, we learned about Panama's environmental characteristics and the diversity of amphibians living there, and how EVACC was established and operated so far. We learned about the amazing evolutionary adaptations of Atelopus species to survive in the cloud forest; how the males use visual communications amist the noisy jungle, how the larvae attach themselves to rock surfaces to not get swept away in the currents and how they feed on ants to produce their skin toxins. When he told us that there are two species of snakes that feed on these poisonous toads to obtain their skin toxin and utilize it when they hunt, we were astonished of how genius nature could be. It also was a good example that got us to ponder how long these toads have been interacting with the environment and the implications of their disappearance in the wild.
After the seminar, We were able to give a brief on our project and receive feedback. He said that if the project was successfully completed, it would be of great help to the association, and thanked us for having interest in the endangered toads. Throughout the interview, Mr.Griffith emphasized the need to protect the environment a lot, and we were able to hear how much he loves amphibians and his efforts to preserve them.
B. Open Seminar with Prof. Matthew Fisher from Imperial College London
At 5:30p.m on October 15, 2021, KUAS held an open seminar with Prof. Matthew Fisher from Imperial College London, who has been researching fungal disease epidemiology for many years. He published a paper, with the participation of reserachers from around the globe, on the origin of Bd. This paper was one of the inspiration for us to start this project(more at description) since it suggests the Korean peninsula as the origin of Bd. Many of his publications provide critical data in understanding the pathogen. It was a valuable opportunity for us to receive advice from a renown scholar of the field.
The interview started with Prof. Matthew Fisher telling us about how his focus of research developed throughout his career. He used to do research on pathogenic fungi that caused infection in humans, but more recently, he is conducting various research on the amphibian pathogen Bd. Most of his research is conducted in his laboratory, but he emphasized the importance of international collaboration when dealing with such an international issue. It is global collaboration that enables researchers to exert influence in a global scale. He told us how the emergence of PCR enabled identification of fungi using ITS, up to the species level, or microsatellites for a higher resolution. Also, he told us how genomic analysis can aid hypothesis generation by revealing potential virulence factors in pathogens. This can be done by searching for homologs of known virulence factors or by analyzing transcriptomic data. However, he mentioned that since Bd is a non-model organism, it is very difficult to generate experimental evidence by knockouts or overexpressing putative virulence factors.
Next, we asked if there are any commonalities among amphibians groups that are susceptible to Bd. He told us that it may be related to the habitat of the species. Species that live in eutrophic environments, where there are many predators of Bd, tend to be more resistant. In oligotrophic environments, Bd faces less competition and predation so they tend to cause more damage. It was interesting to learn that Bd susceptibility is affected by environmental conditions because we previously thought that Bd susceptibility would be only related to the immunity of the species. Utilizing natural predators of Bd could be another approach taken in the future.
Then, we presented our solution and received feedback. Mr. Fisher liked how we analyzed the conventional approaches and came up with our idea of including mucus binding proteins since they could help the establishment of the cells. He also pointed out the importance of the evolutionary relationship of the probiotic bacteria and the host amphibian. For the light sensors, he was concerned about nocturnal species and suggested that it would be better if there were also a night version of violacein producing microbes. But for diurnal species, our system could be synergistic with amphibian behaviors, since some amphibians tend to bask in the sun to get rid of Bd which is susceptible to temperature. Our system would aid the removal of Bd by producing violacein when the amphibians bask under the sun. Most critically, he told us that actually unlike most fungi, chitin is not a cell wall component of Bd. Chytrids are a ancient lineage of fungi so they possess a cell wall made of a type of cellulose. This piece of information was critical because we developed a chitin sensor hoping to sense the presence of the pathogen. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to revise our design. However, the constructs we developed would be useful since chitin binding domains can be swapped with Bd cellulose domains with further research in the future.
This open interview was extremely helpful. It had us to better understand the pathogen and receive critical feedback from an expert's point of view. His many of his feedbacks would serve critical in developing this project in the future. We thank Mr. Fisher for generously providing us with knowledge and insights.