Salamander science


Salamander Science

Prof. Ryan Kerney and biology students conduct salamander research

“Biologists live in the details,” said Gettysburg College Assistant Professor of Biology Ryan Kerney. “Students are amazed by how much we can still learn from studying local species.”

This summer, Kerney is delving into the details of salamander research alongside biology and music double major Jasper Leavitt ’15, and Kalli Qutub ’16, a biology major pursuing a teaching certification. The Gettysburgians are spearheading two separate projects, but both illuminate the diversity of these remarkable creatures.

Salamander eggsLeavitt is exploring the symbiotic relationship between the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) and the single-celled green algae that live in its egg capsules. His work will help further clarify how an algal cell is capable of entering a vertebrate host without causing any harm.

“This [entry] is either through an invasion or recruitment,” explained Leavitt, who helped jumpstart the project during the spring semester. “Invasion, despite negative connotations, is simply the algae actively entering the passive host cell. Recruitment is the salamander cells actively engulfing the algae.”

Coincidentally, synthetic biologists and chemists have recently engineered similar associations in zebrafish, mice, and even human cells with various algae, Kerney says.

“Our symbiosis is the result of co-evolution, while theirs is through design. By characterizing the mechanism of cellular entry, we will further inform these efforts toward artificial symbioses—some of which currently rely on mechanisms co-opted from pathogens.”

Through the project, Kerney and Leavitt—with collaboration from Dr. Eunsoo Kim of the American Museum of Natural History—hope to address important questions regarding patterns and processes of evolution, ecology, and development.

KerneyKerney earned a National Science Foundation grant to research this natural phenomenon in June 2014. His project is funded though the Division of Integrative Organismal System’s program on Symbiosis and Self Defense.

Qutub’s project, which is an extension of work undertaken by BOLD alumnus Kenny Anderson ’14, explores beneficial bacteria during the maturation of red-backed salamanders (Plethodon cinereus).

The project initially employed next-generation sequencing techniques to investigate bacteria on embryos collected from the surrounding Gettysburg area—luckily, the Appalachians are a hotbed for salamanders. The team then would take DNA extracted from the egg clutches of the red-backed salamanders and determine what bacteria are present.

“Some of these bacteria are probiotic, which help prevent a fungal disease that is threatening amphibians around the world,” said Kerney, who has conducted research on every continent except Antarctica. “Understanding when, and how, these microbes establish themselves is a basic research question with implications for the conservation of many amphibian species.”

Today, Kerney and Qutub are also working to shed light on whether the bacteria are inherited directly from the mother or the salamander’s environment.

Qutub“I have learned so much this summer,” Qutub said, “but most importantly I’ve learned to be patient and not be discouraged by negative results, especially when working with live animals.”

Ultimately, Kerney hopes his students’ summer research experience will allow them to gain a greater appreciation for the rich diversity within amphibians, and develop into well-rounded biologists eager to pursue independent research.

“Classroom science tends be safe and prefabricated, while research is ambitious, uncertain, and DIY (do it yourself). Even before [students] gain technical ability, they need to be able to form a meaningful hypothesis that can be tested,” said Kerney, crediting his own professors for instilling these lessons within him while studying canid skull evolution as an undergrad at Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts, and while pursuing his PhD at Harvard.

Qutub and Leavitt“Results are often hard-won, and always critically scrutinized. Defending results is a nerve-wracking experience that can be even more difficult than getting the data in the first place. Our students need to become the first, and hardest, critic of their own work.” 

And with Kerney’s mentorship, they are.





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Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Contact: Mike Baker, senior assistant director of communications, 717.337.6521.

Posted: Thu, 31 Jul 2014

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