Molecular biology students in Professor Janet Williams’ class are experiencing firsthand novel research into unexplored territory in DNA studies.

At a 2009 talk on human and environmental metagenomics, Williams discovered she had the perfect future project for her class. Broadly, metagenomics is the study of genetic material recovered directly from environmental samples and then sequenced.

As the worm turns

Elms Student Research into Parasites in Horse Guts Could Help Inform Human Health Treatments

Molecular biology students in Professor Janet Williams’ class are experiencing firsthand novel research into unexplored territory in DNA studies.

At a 2009 talk on human and environmental metagenomics, Williams discovered she had the perfect future project for her class. Broadly, metagenomics is the study of genetic material recovered directly from environmental samples and then sequenced. 

“I thought, well, that’s pretty cool, and that would be an easy thing to do because we have horses, and we could just get fecal samples,” she said. Williams and her husband, Steven Williams, a biology professor at Smith College, own and operate Coyote Run Farm in North Hatfield. 

“This is novel research, really unchartered territory. The techniques are the most important because the students learn to do DNA extractions, they learn to do DNA manipulations, they learn how to use the various types of equipment we use in a molecular biology lab, and those things are really critical,” Williams said. “And that will enable them to use Elms College as a platform essentially to go on to either graduate school or medical school, or any of the health professions. To have this type of understanding of molecular research is really, really important.”

While the four-year biology major at Elms College is comparable to the same degree you could get at, say, Harvard University, what sets Elms apart from most other programs is the fact that undergraduates get to do research, Williams said.

“At a lot of schools, the undergraduates don’t have the opportunity to do research. That is a very unique thing we offer that’s usually saved for the graduate students,” Williams said. “At Elms, we are really providing something that most small schools don’t at all.”

Here at Elms, “if a student shows an interest, they’re in” the lab working, she said. That’s how she came to have two first-year students, Michael Zulch ʼ17 and Halah Alsari ʼ17, working on the project this year with Eddie Innarelli ʼ14 and Carla Lauture ʼ15.

“This is the first time this has ever happened,” Williams said of having first years. “Usually I get them at best as juniors, and it takes a whole semester to learn the technique.”

“One of the things I really like about this project is that it gives the opportunity for each student to have their own project or projects, but they’re still doing the same techniques as everyone else in the lab. And there are hundreds of thousands of bacteria in the gut - we won’t run out of projects for the foreseeable future,” she said.

One result that was immediately of concern, Williams said, was the fact that while the horses feed and daily routine stayed consistent, the populations of microorganisms in their guts would vary tremendously.

Because of that, “I felt there was no rhyme or reason to understanding what was happening by looking at this metagenomic population,” Williams said. “I felt we should take the project a step further and instead of looking at the entire metagenome, also look at very specific bacterial organism populations. So that’s where we’re at now.”

edward innarelli

Looking a gift horse in the gut

Finding out more about the worms that live in horse intestinal tracts could have a significant impact on our understanding of diseases that affect human health. Horses and humans have similar gut anatomies, and both are hosts to a vast array of microorganisms and bacteria.

For example, Onchocerciasis, or river blindness, is caused by a thin parasitic worm that can live for up to 14 years in the human body. It is the world's second leading infectious cause of blindness, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), affecting 18 million people worldwide. Lymphatic filariasis, commonly known as elephantiasis, threatens nearly 1.4 billion people in 73 countries, and more than 120 million are currently infected, according to the WHO.

Those are just two examples of the deadly and debilitating diseases caused by parasites.

“It’s really an important thing, because whether we get sick or stay healthy has a lot to do with our bacterial genome,” Williams said. “Bacteria actually do a whole lot for us. They complete the digestion of our food, they keep us from getting sick. The way we are able to absorb different nutrients or possibly use different drugs could be dependent on our metagenomic population.”

One hypothesis being explored by the research is called the Hygiene Hypothesis – basically that there is such a thing as being too clean. Developed countries such as the U.S. have a much higher rate of autoimmune diseases such as allergies than undeveloped countries do. The thinking is that the immune system isn’t being kept busy fighting off invaders, so it looks inward, becoming hypersensitive.

“The hypothesis is pretty well supported by the data we’re looking at,” Williams said. “You don’t see these diseases in developing countries where parasites in people are a problem.”

carla lauture

Undergraduate student-driven research

The first students who worked on the project have since moved on to pursue advanced degrees, and Williams’ husband has a number of related research programs ongoing at Smith College, several of which involved former Elms students.

Students involved in the work now say they appreciate the strong foundation the research is providing.

“It really is giving me a head start in learning laboratory techniques,” said Lauture, a biology major from Springfield who hopes to pursue a career in clinical research. “I had never done independent lab work before.”

The DNA extractions she has been performing since she joined the research project in September are undoubtedly boosting her résumé, and will help her succeed in a clinical research internship at Baystate this summer. “I won’t go in knowing nothing at all about how to do research,” she said.

Innarelli, a senior pre-med and biology major from Ludlow, wants a career as a physician assistant, and sees the lab techniques he is learning in performing DNA extractions as a great foundation if he ever decides to pursue work in FDA or clinical trials.

“This is my third semester doing this, and it’s still tough,” he said of the time-consuming, meticulous work. “In science, nothing works how you want it to.”

Freshman Michael Zulch ʼ17 of Ludlow, a biology major who wants to be an oncologist, is interested in seeing the affect medicine has on the metagenomes of the horse gut.

“I wanted to start early,” he said of the research he has been doing for only a few weeks, “so that as I progress, I can possibly do my own experimentation and take it in a direction of my own.”

michael zulch

New lab space a plus

The students and Williams all agree that the new research laboratories in the new Center for Natural and Health Sciences are a great asset. The team has a dedicated bench in the lab in the basement of the new center.

“This is a nice space to work in. The feeling is totally different,” than the old labs in Berchmans Hall, Williams said. “It feels like the right environment to be doing science. It’s a lovely space–you just want to be down there.”

She joked that she also likes the fact that, being below ground, the brightly lit space has no windows to the outside.

“They have no idea what time it is,” she said cheerfully, “or how long they’ve been down there.”

Because the work is time-consuming and exacting, finding a balance is critical, the students said.

“You have to be disciplined – time really flies,” Zulch said. “I’m just starting to figure out what the balance is.”

What’s Next

Understanding of the work being done now could take a leap forward with the purchase of a particular machine, which costs $20,000. Williams is hoping that can happen if the college receives a National Science Foundation grant of more than $500,000 it applied for in partnership with the Computer Information Technology Department and hopes to hear about this summer. That money could also help pay students to work as summer interns on the project, she said.

Want to study in a science field at Elms College? We have STEM scholarships available to make that happen.