NSF Awards $1 Million to Davidson and Missouri Western State University Researchers

by Robert Abare '13
Professors Heyer and Campbell with student
It was Hawaiian Shirt Friday in the Dana Building lab last summer when Professors Campbell and Heyer were photographed working with student researcher Zanier Fuller from Johnson C. Smith University.

Validating years of collaborative work, the National Science Foundation has awarded researchers at Davidson and Missouri Western State University a combined grant of over $1 million. Professor of Biology A. Malcolm Campbell and Professor and Chair of Mathematics Laurie Heyer will use $584,913 of the award spread over three years to continue leading multidisciplinary undergraduate research in synthetic biology.

The NSF grant will support a total of 18 Davidson student researchers working over the summers of 2014, 2015 and 2016 who will travel between Davidson and Missouri Western and represent the two institutions at the annual meeting of the Institute of Biological Engineering (IBE). The grant will also provide for laboratory supplies, computer software and an advanced instrument called a flow cytometer valued at $57,000.

"The fact that the NSF funded our project at 100% of our requested budget tells us they value our blend of basic research and interdisciplinary cross training of undergraduates," Campbell said. 

For many years Campbell, Heyer and their partners at Missouri Western have been funded by the NSF to lead undergraduate research in synthetic biology.  "The goal of synthetic biology is to engineer bacteria or other organisms to do useful things," explained Heyer. 

The team's current project aims to engineer bacteria that produce the compound theophylline, a drug used to treat patients with asthma.  To design these drug-producing bacteria, the team alters the genetic material that governs the microbes' functions. 

Campbell explained that the project is unique in its attempt to avoid the obstacles typically posed by natural selection. "Natural selection is an evolutionary process in which the most efficient organisms survive and reproduce," he said. "Since the bacteria we engineer don't need to produce theophylline, those that produce less will become more numerous until the bacteria can no longer effectively synthesize the drug."

The team will redirect the rules of natural selection to favor bacteria that produce theophylline. "We only reward the bacteria that produce the drug with a food source, which benefits those bacteria to continue to reproduce and survive."

Heyer and mathematics students contribute to the project by using computer models to predict what will happen in the lab. "Our computer models can predict how the bacteria's genes interact with each other and how they turn each other on and off," she explained. "A computer model can also simulate all of the genetic variations that will appear in a bacteria population."

"It takes a biologist weeks to construct a single gene by hand in the lab," Campbell added. "The mathematicians, on the other hand, can model 65,000 genes in one day, and then tell us which one will be the most rewarding to actually build."

Heyer quipped, "Three months in the lab can save an afternoon on the computer."

Though their interdisciplinary research may have far-reaching implications on the biotechnology industry, Campbell said the most rewarding aspect of the project is its effect on Davidson students. "Many students have entered this project thinking they are either mathematics or biology students," he said.  "Afterwards, they want to take classes in both subjects, and they have gained skills both in the lab and on the computer."

Campbell said the results of this cross training are immediately visible.  "Because our students have both computer modeling and lab skills, they are accepted into top graduate programs and internships," he said.

Campbell and Heyer have long been pioneers in teaching synthetic biology to undergraduates.   The two developed one of the first undergraduate research programs in genomics in 2001 and coauthored the first true undergraduate textbook in genomics, Discovering Genomics, Proteomics and Bioinformatics in 2002.  The two are also the founders of the Genome Consortium for Active Teaching (GCAT), an international organization that increases the number of faculty teaching genomics to undergraduates.

The grant from the NSF will allow Campbell and Heyer to continue to be leaders in interdisciplinary undergraduate research.  "The NSF's encouragement to complete this project with students is really special," said Campbell. "Laurie and I have the best jobs."