Tami Mysliwiec works with a student researcher

GOING VIRAL: Mysliwiec advocates for student researchers

By: Lisa Baldi
Mysliwiec, advocate for student researchers, tackles tough questions: How do viruses cause disease? Where did we come from?

When you walk into Dr. Tami Mysliwiec’s biological laboratory, you will find her surrounded by students, working on research. “Our job is to train student scientists,” states Mysliwiec. “Students are the future of research.”

Mysliwiec, Associate Professor of Biology at Penn State Berks, has conducted bacterial research on a variety of topics. Since joining Penn State Berks in 1999, she has collaborated with nearly 60 students in her research lab. She publishes scholarly papers with students and takes them to national conferences. “The students really have to have hands-on experiences,” asserts Mysliwiec. “Undergraduate research is a high-impact learning experience. One of the strengths of Penn State Berks is that part of our strategic plan is to provide students with high-impact learning.”

Training undergraduate researchers requires creativity on Mysliwiec’s part because she always has to have a variety of projects in progress. One significant aspect of her current research deals with host/parasite interactions, in which the parasite (a virus) infects the host (Bacillus). She and her students are currently investigating host genes that are modified upon viral infection. “Approximately 25 percent of Bacillus genes are altered in their expression pattern after infection with the virus, SP10.”

Mysliwiec is currently investigating the theory that the SP10 virus can cause cells to become dormant, thus providing a survival mechanism for the virus by allowing it to get trapped within the dormant cell (commonly called a spore) away from harsh environmental conditions. According to Mysliwiec, these viruses may offer a relatively unexplored reservoir for novel genes that could play a role in altering host cell physiology and have practical biotechnology applications. The study of interactions between viruses and host cells has significant implications for the study of how deadly viruses such as Ebola and Smallpox affect humans.

A smaller scale project in the Mysliwiec lab involves Archeabacteria, an ancient form of life that evolved separately from bacteria and is classified within its own Domain. Many Archaebacteria survive in extreme environments, such as deep-sea thermal vents or salt flats. One such organism is the halophilic Archeabacteria, Halosimplex carlsbadense. The light-sensitive pigment halorhodopsin gives Halosimplex its unique pink color and provides the organism with chemical energy across the cell membrane. This chemical energy is used in the synthesis of ATP, the energy source of the cell. Halorhodopsin is chemically similar to the light-detecting pigment rhodopsin, found in the vertebrate retina. The fact that Archeabacteria contain a protein that is similar in structure to human rhodopsin is significant, leading to the hypothesis that there may be a biological link between these ancient organisms and humans. The implications for this research relate to human evolution and a better understanding of genetics.

Yet another student-driven project involves a comparative genomic analysis between several Bacillus species and Bacillus anthracis, the causative agent of anthrax. Anthrax, a rare but serious illness, garnered media attention when it was used in bioterrorism, in the form of letters containing the Ames strain, in the United States in 2001. Bacillus anthracis can be found naturally in soil and commonly affects domestic and wild animals around the world; however, humans can become infected through direct or indirect contact with infected animals.

The ultimate measure of success for a scientist is the publication of a peer-reviewed research article. While not all students contribute enough to warrant inclusion as an author on a peer-reviewed manuscript, the hope is always that they might work hard enough and generate enough data to warrant authorship. Mysliwiec is submitting a research paper entitled “Analysis of Bacillus subtilis gene expression during infection by bacteriophage SP10,” which includes two student authors, Lesley Turner and Robert Knoll.

Another avenue for increasing possibilities of student authorship is through collaboration with other scientists. Mysliwiec collaborates with other Berks faculty on a variety of research projects. She is currently working with Dr. Lorena Tribe, Associate Professor of Chemistry, on a grant for computational molecular modeling of bacteriorhodopsin. Mysliwiec recently published an article on cell surface chemistry in collaboration with Dr. David Aurentz, Associate Professor of Chemistry. This research resulted in a paper titled “Characterization of Bacillus subtilis sporulation and bacteriophage infection via FT-IR spectroscopy” and included co-author and Penn State Berks alumnus Anthony Tierno, who is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University.

Mysliwiec sees her role as a professor at an undergraduate institution primarily in terms of stimulating scientific thinking in her students. “No activity has more impact than research,” she says, “which is why I advocate so strongly for the inclusion of undergraduates in any research projects I undertake.”