Shannon Hinsa-Leasure, associate professor of biology, along with her students and collaborators, are researching ways to develop novel technology to study the diversity of antibiotic-resistance genes and how the genes can be transferred between bacteria.
The research is funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant of $999,346 awarded to a team of researchers including Hinsa-Leasure, along with her collaborators at Iowa State University and the USDA Agricultural Research Service.
In addition, Hinsa-Leasure has received a one-year $20,262 grant from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture to expand on the USDA grant by investigating bacterial community structure in soils fertilized with animal manure. Both grants will support undergraduate research at Grinnell College.
The grants will enable researchers to monitor hundreds of genes related to antibiotic resistance, the spread of resistance, and microbial diversity in environmental samples at one time, providing a more in-depth characterization of environments than current technologies. The technologies can be used for many types of environments including, hospitals, farms and water systems, and will allow researchers to study if and how antibiotic resistance genes move in particular environments.
“I am delighted that Shannon has received these grants that will create new opportunities for our students to conduct collaborative, cutting-edge research,” says Michael Latham, dean of Grinnell College. “This research reinforces Grinnell’s commitment to active scholarship and inquiry-led learning opportunities that reach beyond our campus.”
Adina Howe, assistant professor in agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State, leads the three-year USDA grant. This grant will support technology development, field sampling, laboratory experiments and workshops to disseminate the open-access bioinformatics pipelines to the broader research community.
“I feel very fortunate to be collaborating with a tremendous team of scientists, who are all sharing their expertise to address an important environmental issue — how do we detect and monitor movement of antibiotic-resistance genes in the environment,” Hinsa-Leasure says.
Hinsa-Leasure, an environmental microbiologist, first began investigating antibiotic-resistance genes in the environment near Grinnell in 2014. This project was instigated by one of her former students, Evan Griffith ’15, who was interested and concerned about the local environment.
“Evan and I began this work with a directed reading course to learn what was happening in the field,” recalls Hinsa-Leasure. “That course led us to the USDA in Ames and the development of a partnership that continues to flourish today.”
“I am excited that this project is continuing and that I made a small contribution,” says Griffith, who received his bachelor’s degree in biology from Grinnell. He recently returned from Australia, where he worked as a research intern on a project between Arid Recovery and the University of New South Wales. He hopes to pursue a master’s degree in conservation medicine at Tufts University.
Griffith is one of eight Grinnell undergraduates who already have participated in the project he and Hinsa-Leasure initiated.
“I am thrilled,” Hinsa-Leasure says, “that through this funding additional Grinnell students will have access to cutting-edge technologies and bioinformatics, which will allow us to advance the field.”