Reflections – Project work in the CAZyme group🌟

August 2021 has been my eighth month working with Lauren and the CAZyme group. It would be a lie if I say there has not been one time that I felt exhausted – what other kind of mood should one have when a just-autoclaved waste bag that is full of agar plates is leaking!? However, I genuinely enjoy every day, and every bit of progress that we have reached here in the biocontrol project.

At the very beginning of my time with the group, I was a master thesis student. From several interesting lectures Lauren gave in my program, Industrial and Environmental Biotechnology (starting Autumn ’19) at KTH, I was hugely intrigued by environmental biotechnology and its applications incorporating sustainability, such as agri-biotech, green food-tech, etc. The importance of microbiology in dealing with environmental contamination is another big aspect that cannot be overlooked. Among the various kinds of microbial application in environmental science and engineering, I have an interest in green agriculture, where the well-known downfall of large-scale commercialized production of crops has endangered the environment more and more drastically via over-fertilization, mono-species cultivation, over-irrigation, etc. Many of these issues have causal links to disproportionate chemical usage, and the abuse of pesticides as well as fungicides is another prime culprit.

Everyday our crop plants are fighting against pathogenic attack. For us to help them survive and grow, the most commonly used measure in this fight is for farmers and growers to apply chemicals to repel the invasion of pathogens. While this might lead to powerful short-term positive results, the tragic side effect lies within the soil, where the supposedly healthy microbial community is destroyed along with the pathogens, if the chemicals aren’t selective. The unbalanced soil consortium is then slowly losing its resilience to recover from the damage caused either by pathogens or chemicals. This is of course ironic, because the chemicals were supposed to be helping the plants!

The theme in green agriculture that I have investigated throughout my project is about “Biocontrol”. I work with a particular soil-inhabiting bacterium, C. pinensis, which is likely to interfere in the ability of pathogens to attack plants, thanks to its own pathogen cell wall-degrading potential. I try to amplify the growth of the bacterium and further mediate its secretion of pathogen-degrading enzymes. The enzymes secreted might be the key to unlocking an alternative to commercial fungicides.

Thanks to other master students and preliminary studies done in the CAZyme lab, I continued the C. pinensis project: I was in charge of testing for in vitro inhibition performance of the bacteria-derived enzymes against pathogenic oomycetes. The oomycetes chosen are ones that can attack plants and bring about severe crop diseases, for instance, root rot, blight, etc. I hope that in the near future you’ll be able to read a publication showcasing my data, but in short, I managed to boost bacterial enzyme secretion through supplementing different kinds of carbon sources in bacterial cultures. Up to now, combined with results from other team members, our hypothesis leads to quite a positive vindication – the carbon source provided and the enzymes henceforth secreted are certainly affecting the bacterium’s inhibition ability in a better than expected way. I won’t give you too much more detail for now 😉

To be able to play a part in this agriculture-related biotechnological research is a great pleasure of mine, for I am concerned with food justice, and to solve major agricultural issues with more sustainable methods is definitely an ultimate goal in the long-term food production scheme: A more recovered soil status means a more fertile/healthy growth condition for crops, which will eventually lead to a better yield in the hope of easing hunger problems. Of course, the issue of hunger is complex to deal with, and only one step forwards towards sustainable production is not enough. But why not see this as a positive step, showing we are heading somewhere, somewhere food justice is to be fulfilled little by little?

Though having had project experience back in my bachelor years, to conduct a research thesis project was an entirely new experience for me, let alone to have the opportunity to extend the project into a paid summer internship, significantly advancing my work through the summer following my graduation. I feel grateful for this chance, and for the advice I have gained from Lauren and all who have helped me in this journey.

Life in the lab feels a bit like working around the train schedule; there exist peak hours and off-peak hours. In the peak hours where several people are waiting to use the same equipment, we learn how to plan ahead better and how to find common benefits via efficient communication; during the off-peak hours, like when the precious summer sun comes out and says “Hi!”, we have the chance to calmly spend time in whatever our work is, listening to ourselves and appreciating the privilege of having access to knowledge. This is what higher education and a scientific career is for, I suppose, to repay what we have received from our teachers, by heading elsewhere to make new efforts in research. The train never stops.

The project is currently still going onwards with many endeavors. Thanks sincerely to Lauren and the CAZyme Group for welcoming and guiding me when executing the project. Even when I was sometimes unsure of which direction to follow in the project, the strong communication and positive working dynamics have never failed to give firm hands, gently assisting step after step. I am glad that I have contributed to some of the results. Let’s finger-cross for cheerful updates on the biocontrol project in the near future!

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