Biology/Chemistry Research

Independent Study

Algae Biofuels: Dr. Todd Allen

Algae can be grown to have a high protein and/or lipid content, which can be used for animal feed, biofuel, or both. Dr. Allen's group uses GC/MS/FID (Gas Chromatography coupled with Mass Spectrometric Detection and Flame Ionization Detection) for quantifying the total lipid content in samples obtained from algae biofuels companies. Several companies are researching cost-effective ways to optimize growth and harvesting techniques in an effort to convert the lipid fraction of the algae biomass into various types of company, can be used for improving the production and harvesting techniques.

This work provides students with hands-on, real-world, interdisciplinary training in both chemistry and biology, and provides them with valuable, transferrable skills and knowledge that prepares them for employment, graduate research, or medical school. For example, (1) students will apply fundamental principles of nutrient limitation, stoichiometry, kinetics, and equilibrium learned in their chemistry and biology courses to the preparation and analysis of samples. (2) Students will acquire valuable chemistry and biology research experience through literature searches, in sample/standard preparation techniques, in the use of state-of-the-art instrumentation, as well as in data analysis, interpretation, and reporting. (3) Students will learn how to effectively summarize and communicate scientific information.

Modulatation of Cannabinoid Receptors: Dr. Alan Fulp

While Dr. Fulp’s formal academic training was in organic chemistry, he has spent most of his career as a medicinal chemist, and medicinal chemistry is the area where the majority of his research interests lie. Currently, Dr. Fulp's interests are focused on two disease states that may be treated with compounds that modulate cannabinoid receptors. The first disease state Dr. Fulp is currently studying is liver fibrosis brought on by a high fat diet. Obesity is an epidemic in America affecting one third of the population. While obesity has several health ramifications, one obesity related health issue that has no approved drugs is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NASH). NASH can progress from liver fibrosis to cirrhosis or even liver failure. However, modulation of the cannabinoid receptors, both CB1 and CB2, has shown promise in the treatment of liver fibrosis due to a variety of causes including NASH in animal models. Therefore, Dr. Fulp's group is pursuing bivalent ligands that will modulate both the CB1 and CB2 receptors. The second area of interest in Dr. Fulp's group is peripherally selective CB1 agonist for the treatment of glaucoma. Glaucoma is a relatively painless disease which can lead to either partial or total loss of vision, and increased intraocular pressure (IOP) has been identified as a risk factor in the most common form of glaucoma, open-angle glaucoma. Agonists of the CB1 are known to lower the IOP of humans; however, CB1 agonists have well documented psychotropic effects. It is believed that these psychotropic effects could be avoided if a peripherally selective CB1 agonist was used to treat glaucoma patients. Finally, due to his background in organic chemistry, Dr. Fulp is also interested in utilizing novel synthetic methods when appropriate to support his medicinal chemistry efforts.

Population studies of MRSA Carriers: Dr. Alan Gillen

Dr. Gillen and his lab students are interested in tracking the incidence of students carrying methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus, as well as finding ways to control MRSA. Many are unaware that pathogens may colonize their body, and they remain asymptomatic. Students take a sample from their nose (anterior nares) and armpits (axilla). Awareness of being a carrier is part of microbial control. Once aware of being a convalescent carrier, students and health care professionals alike can control the spread of germs. Dr. Gillen's previous research focused on what antiseptics, hand sanitizers and soaps work best in controlling Staphylococcus aureus and other common bacteria. In general, antibacterial compounds work best. So far, Dr. Gillen and his students found that chlorhexidine and triclosan antibacterial soaps are the most effective toward all of the bacteria types tested while antiseptics such as alcohol (found in hand sanitizer) are the least effective. What effect does repeated hand washing have on the normal microbiota and the health of skin? How do you keep skin from being damaged by zealous hand washing? Are there 'probiotic' solutions to replacing the repeated scrubbing action of hand washing? Dr. Gillen's students hope to publish this study in an ASM journal. The results of this research could thus benefit the entire student body by helping to educate students regarding proper hand hygiene, keeping skin healthy, and the awareness of germs living in and on their bodies. This is especially true for those going into clinics carrying SuperStaph and MRSA.

Chemical Modifications to DNA in Alzheimer's Disease: Dr. Gary Isaacs

Although several mutations have been associated with patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease (AD), several lines of evidence suggest that AD development might be caused by chemical modifications which alter the DNA sequence. Dr. Isaacs' hypothesis is that AD results from these chemical modifications because they influence the activity of nearby genes (which produce the working enzyme in every cell). Dr. Isaacs' overall research plan is three-fold: 1) to identify regions of the genome that become chemically altered as the brain progresses toward an AD-like state, 2) to correlate the location and magnitude of these chemical changes with the activity of the nearby genes, and 3) to determine the activity of genes in brain and blood tissue allowing a convenient and non-invasive screening method for physicians as they diagnose their patients.

Pathophysiology of Alcoholic Liver Disease: Dr. Ben Kalu

According to the Center for Disease Control, chronic liver diseases and Alcoholic Liver Disease are the 12th leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for about 34,000 deaths in 2011. Also, liver cancers are the 8th leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. with about 16,000 deaths per year. A common factor associated with these liver diseases is chronic alcohol consumption. Therefore, our group is interested in elucidating the molecular mechanisms and pathophysiology of alcoholic liver disease and its course/progression to liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. We use in-vivo models of chronic alcohol consumption as well as alcohol-treated cell culture models to examine:

  • genes whose expression levels are altered and the physiological impacts of such alterations
  • subcellular localization, integrity and functions of organelles with particular emphasis on the mitochondria (oxidative stress) and lysosomes (autophagy)
  • possible molecules, drugs or nutritional supplements that may reverse, retard or halt the development of progression of these disease conditions (drug discovery)

Our group is very hands-on and student-oriented, affording the students flexibility to work at their individual paces while giving them exposure to laboratory skills and analytical competencies that will help define their career paths and make them competitive in the science community.

Organic Chemistry: Dr. Michael Korn

Dr. Korn’s research interests are at the interphase between organic chemistry, materials science, and biology. Currently, the following research areas are being pursued: (1) chemistry of the origin of life; (2) development of new organic laboratory experiments; (3) organic semiconductors; (4) electrically conducting ink (in collaboration with the department of electrical engineering).

Fungi Gene Regulation: Dr. Michael Price

Dr. Price and his students are interested in understanding how fungi regulate genes important for human, animal, and plant disease. Currently, we are interested in two main research questions: 1) How does the human pathogenic fungus Cryptococcus neoformans regulate carbon acquisition in its host, and what effect does carbon source have on its interaction with its host? 2) How does the plant pathogenic fungus Aspergillus flavus regulate the production of fungal toxins in response to its environment? We are collaborating with colleagues at the University of Michigan, Duke University, and North Carolina State University to answer these questions. My students have presented their research at the Virginia Academy of Science and the Big South Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Herpetology Studies: Dr. Norm Reichenbach and Dr. Timothy Brophy

Dr. Reichenbach is directing four long-term field projects including:

  1. The stability of an urban population of Eastern Box turtles (Terrapene carolina) where forest fragmentation and urbanization may be impacting the turtles. This is a mark/recapture and telemetry study conducted by students from ecology (Biology 310).
  2. The population size and survival rates of Eastern newts (Notophthalamus viridescens) which addresses concerns about declines in amphibian populations worldwide. This is a mark/recapture study that uses the Visible Implant Elastomer tags (a harmless yet permanent marking technique) to mark the newts. Students from ecology (Biology 310) conduct this study.
  3. The gestation site use by timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus). Passive Integrated transponder tags are injected into snakes to assess the frequency with which they return to the gestation sites.
  4. The restoration and recovery of the Plains gartersnake (Thamnophis radix), a State of Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Dr. Reichenbach is also conducting ecological research on the Peaks of Otter Salamander (Plethodon hubrichti) with Dr. Tim Brophy and teams of biology students. They are currently researching why this species has a very restricted geographical distribution.

Migration Dynamics of Northern Saw-whet Owls: Dr. Gene Sattler

Northern Saw-whet Owls are a rare breeder at high elevations in Virginia and a secretive migrant throughout its range. Prior to initiating a project banding them during migration, only two historical records existed for the Lynchburg area. However, with the help of biology students, we have banded nearly 400 saw-whets at our banding station since 2002. The project is focused on exploring the migration dynamics of this species as we answer questions about the timing of the migration in this region, differences in the magnitude of flights among years, and differences in the timing and magnitude of movement among age and sex classes. A banding station here also adds insights into the geographic distribution of Northern Saw-whet Owls during migration; we are one of the more southern banding stations for the species in eastern North America, and our location in the inner Piedmont of Virginia complements saw-whet banding stations in Virginia in the Ridge and Valley province to the northwest and in the Coastal Plain province to the east. The project also provides students with valuable field experience in mist netting, handling, and banding birds.

A second project has been studying the fall hawk migration from Liberty Mountain since 1997. Over a dozen species of hawks and other diurnally migrating raptors such as eagles and osprey migrate through Virginia each year. The study of their migration dynamics in Virginia has always been done predominantly along mountain ridges of the western mountain and valley region and along the coast of the eastern coastal plain. We are documenting this migration in the inner Piedmont region in order to fill in gaps in our understanding of Virginia's hawk migration.

Tick Disease Surveillance on Candler's Mountain: Dr. David McGuirt

Dr. McGuirt runs a tick disease surveillance research project for Lyme Disease, Ehrlichia, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever on Candler's Mountain, Lynchburg, VA involving pre-veterinary research students and genetics research students (from Dr. Isaacs). The project consists of regular collections of ticks from 3 sites from March through October. Ticks are counted, sexed, and sorted into species. The tick DNA is extracted, amplified through PCR, and read for unique antigenic sections of DNA for the 3 diseases mentioned. It is a qualitative study to determine if any of the 3 disease-causing agents are in ticks locally collected. As funding allows, the number of sites (and geographic coverage) may increase. Related studies on wild white-footed mice are also planned for the same sites.

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