College Grad Tries to Figure Out What Her Undergrad Research Was About

Hi compassionate teddy bear team! It’s so nice to be back in the groove with this blog. CoCB is all about honesty and candor. So feeling like I had to keep my true goals a secret was really a bummer and it definitely lended itself to half-hearted blog posts thrown together on Friday afternoon. Now we’re back to our usual selves. Yay for that! 🧸

So I don’t know about all of you, but I was told that doing research in undergrad was absolutely ESSENTIAL to my future. The longer the research experience the better! Get involved on day one! And I do feel that my research experience was helpful to my future in some ways. For example, in my first job interview they asked “have you ever used a biosafety hood” and I had used one to make agar plates. That experience, and being able to answer yes to that question, is probably one reason I got my first job at Huntsman.

What I feel is underemphasized with regards to undergrad research is that you should actually care about your PI’s research and your project within the research group! It’s not just like you should find a lab that might be ok, might be tolerable, no way. You could be with this group for up to 4 years and take it from me, coming into the lab should not feel like a burden or an imprisonment.

For me, I found my PI’s research interesting enough. It was about microbiota influence on genotype –> phenotype expression in fruit flies. My problem was that I didn’t value myself enough to seek out a project I was interested in within the research group. I just figured I’d take whatever no one else wanted. And that is how I ended up doing 2.5 years of forcing bacteria to have sex.

I thought that graduation would take me far away from bacterial sex butttttt…. As I’ve been doing my microbiology class ugh of course it’s in there.

Since it’s kind of difficult to find time to blog between work, spike captain, and online school, I thought this week we’d tie in some studying with blogging. Let’s figure out how bacteria have sex and why we as future health professionals should care in the slightest. This is the work I probably should have done if and when I decided that yes I would commit to years of bacterial conjugation work, but you know… one of the themes of this blog is it’s never too late.

Me and myself in 2016 on the roof by the lab trying soooooo hard to care about bacteria sex.

Okay so let’s learn. Bacteria that are fertile and ready to mingle are called F+ bacteria. Bacteria have circular DNA. That’s their own DNA that they keep. F+ bacteria also have a circular plasmid. Prior to conjugation, the double stranded plasmid unwinds into 2 single strands. One of those single strands is akin to the DNA of one of our sex cells, or really, let’s be real, it’s equivalent to the DNA of sperm because it’s the bit of genetic info that leaves its original host to go on an adventure. Meanwhile, the strand left behind duplicates back into a double stranded plasmid to be ready for next time.

So then our F+ cell sticks out a plius, which is a protein structure to transport the single stranded plasmid out of the bacterial cell.

F+ cell just chilling
The plius sticks out and the fun begins

And I know I typically look at diagrams like this like “eeeeeep fam looks complicated” but really bacterial conjugation is strangely familiar. It’s quite similar to how us big fat mammals exchange genetic information and push evolution into action.

So what did I do with this as an undergrad? Well I tried to force some different species to come together and transit plasmids between each other. I was trying to confer certain traits into a bacterial strain so it could be used in our fruit flies, to see how bacterial changes affect them.

And interestingly, bacteria can successfully conjugate outside of their own species, under the correct conditions. I even made that happen a few times! And why that matters, well, it gives bacteria an incredible and scary ability to evolve in new ways.

Most bacteria is good or neutral for us so don’t think I’m calling all bacteria bad.

But bacteria conjugation, including between species, gives some pathogenic bacteria the chance to develop sneaky new traits. Antibiotic resistance, we see you.

It turns out it’s actually super important for us future healthcare professionals to know that bacteria can exchange genetic information. That’s key bit of how nasty bacteria get their nastiness, not to mention how we big mammals evolved from single-celled life.

So back to studying for me I guess. When you take the time to dig in to a topic, anything can be interesting!

Take care this week, my bears!

-Laura Cooper-Hastings

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Alayna says:

    Hi Laura! I was chatting on discord earlier and thought of you. Hope all is well 🙂


  2. Josie says:

    Hi Laura! I just found your blog via discord- I’m a BYU grad who’s also applying to GC- just one school this
    year :). I think we might have even had a class together at some point, you definitely look super familiar! But best of luck to you! your blog posts honestly have been super helpful.


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