Student, Faculty Research Draws Global Attention
Contact: Kent Heier
Title: Assist. Public Relations/Marketing Director
STUDENT, FACULTY RESEARCH DRAWS GLOBAL ATTENTION
St. Joseph, Mo. —July 28, 2009—For the second year in a row, research conducted by students and faculty members at Missouri Western State University is attracting international attention.
A research paper produced by a 2007 research team with subsequent work and in collaboration with students and faculty at Davidson College in North Carolina was published July 24 by the Journal of Biological Engineering. Science Web sites around the world have reported on the paper, which was accessed more than 13,000 times in the first four days after publication.
The article, “Solving a Hamiltonian Path Problem with Bacteria,” explains current research in genetically engineering E. coli bacteria, creating bacterial computers to solve a mathematical problem called the Hamiltonian Path Problem. The Hamiltonian Path Problem is a special case of the “traveling salesman problem,” which seeks the shortest possible route to visit a given list of cities once. The Hamiltonian Path Problem asks whether there is or is not a route in a directed graph from a beginning node to an ending node, visiting each node exactly once. The student and faculty researchers modified the genetic circuitry of the bacteria to enable them to evaluate all possible paths in a directed graph, finding a Hamiltonian path in a three-node directed graph. Bacteria that successfully solved the problem reported that success by fluorescing both red and green, resulting in yellow colonies.
“[The research] provided yet another example of how powerful and fluid synthetic biology can be,” said Jordan Baumgardner, of Cincinnati, recent graduate of Western and first author of the research paper. “We used it to solve mathematical problems. Others use it for medical reasons. There is no telling what else it may be able to do.”
Dr. Jeffrey Poet, associate professor of mathematics, and Dr. Todd Eckdahl, professor and department chair of biology, were the two faculty members co-mentoring the research group.
“Our overall approach to this project is that as faculty, we teach students how to do research by bringing students alongside us to perform real, original research,” Dr. Poet said.
Other Western students that co-authored the research are Tom Crowley, of Savannah, Mo.; Lane Heard, of St. Joseph; Nick Morton, of Agency, Mo.; Michelle Ritter, of Savannah, Mo.; Jessica Treece, of Mound City, Mo.; Matt Unzicker, of St. Joseph; and Amanda Valencia, of St. Joseph.
“This is a great result for our efforts and for the university at large,” Dr. Poet said. “It is a demonstration of the kind of applied learning activities that are available to undergraduates on our campus that are not typically available at most other institutions.”
The research is funded through a National Science Foundation grant received in the summer of 2007. The three-year grant pays for communication technology needed for the collaboration with Davidson, visits by nationally known guest speakers, research supplies, summer stipends for research students, travel to Davidson College for a week of face-to-face collaboration and travel to the annual international Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition at MIT, where Western has won several awards.
The article is very technical, but Baumgardner hopes that the general reader can see that science and synthetic biology are making new things possible. “I would want the average person to see the potential of science and synthetic biology and the cool things it can do,” he said.
A team from Western and Davidson published work last year in the same publication, detailing their work to produce bacterial computers that could solve another classical mathematical problem known as the Burnt Pancake Problem. Last year’s paper was featured on National Public Radio and in England’s Daily Telegraph, along with dozens of other web sites. This year, the paper has been covered by “Popular Science,” United Press International and the science blog of the Guardian newspaper. Dr. Eckdahl was interviewed by a reporter for the BBC’s Science and Technology Web site. Stories have appeared on Web sites in the U.S., Britain, Austria, India and other countries.
The 2008 article is the most accessed article in the history of the Journal of Biological Engineering, receiving nearly 17,000 hits since it went online in May, according to statistics on the journal’s Web site. The new article is now the second most popular article in the journal’s history.
“I’d like to congratulate the Western students and faculty on an impressive job well done,” said Dr. Murray Nabors, dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences. “This achievement illustrates the importance of our focus in involving undergraduates in research and on funding summer research opportunities for both faculty and students.”
Missouri Western State University is a comprehensive regional university providing a blend of traditional liberal arts and professional degree programs. The university offers student-centered, high quality instruction that focuses on experience-based learning, community service, and state-of-the-art technology. Western is located in St. Joseph, Mo., and is committed to the educational, economic, cultural and social development of the region it serves.