Students get their hands wet with river research

Researchers hope a new U course could spark policy changes for local industries.

Raghav Mehta

Researchers hope a course that began this semester at the University of Minnesota could spark policy changes for local industries near the Mississippi River. The course, Biology 4950, is based on the Minnesota Mississippi Metagenome Project. Funded by federal stimulus money, the project is a collaborative effort between researchers and students to study microorganisms found in the Mississippi River. The project seeks to teach students about microbial life in the river and how human activity affects it, said Bruce Jarvis, a biology professor who teaches the course. Human activity could include anything from sewage management or nearby farming. The data gathered from the research could then be used to negotiate policy changes. Principal Investigator and Director of the University Biotech Institute Michael Sadowsky said that in order to maintain and restore habitats, researchers need to understand the impact of human activity on those ecosystems. Students analyze DNA samples extracted from the river and store them in a âÄúgenomic library.âÄù By sifting through the data, students can determine the kinds of microorganisms located in the river and their various functions. âÄúIt gives [students] an idea of what research would be like if they went to graduate school,âÄù Jarvis said. âÄúThey have been very positive, very enthusiastic.âÄù While the course is the only one of its kind currently offered, Sadowsky said there are plans to add courses as early as this summer at the UniversityâÄôs Itasca Biological Station and Laboratory. Additional courses will be added at the Twin Cities campus this fall. âÄúFrom the get-go it was going to be a student project,âÄù Sadowsky said. Although the class only meets once a week, students spend time outside of class conducting research. Sadowsky stressed the impact the research could have on policy. âÄúIf we found that some farming practices were impinging on the river,âÄù Sadowsky said, âÄúwe could work with policy agencies to have setbacks so that the farming isnâÄôt done as close to the river as in the past.âÄù Sadwosky said the time frame for the project is indefinite. âÄúEvery time you do an analysis, itâÄôs just one snapshot in time, so you really need to have multiple years of data before you can really see the trends.âÄù Sadowsky said he hopes to take the project to the national level by working with other universities near the Mississippi River. The project would also offer opportunities for middle school and high school students to participate. Jane Phillips, an education specialist in the College of Biological Sciences, oversees the academic side of the project. She said it is a unique opportunity for students to be engaged in affordable genomic research on almost any level. âÄúTheyâÄôre going to be learning about metagenomics and about the ecology of the Mississippi river,âÄù Sadowsky said. âÄúAnd those who are more interested in the policy and management side of it, they can get involved.âÄù