By Charles Schelle
Eugenia Asare is helping the nation’s top scientists find answers about anthrax before she earns her bachelor’s degree from Frostburg State University.
The health sciences major from Gaithersburg is working with world-renowned experts at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md., to help solve unanswered questions about anthrax by seeing what happens when a harmless protein found in the potential biological weapon is mutated.
“Research like this seems to be something you do at a Harvard or Yale, but to come from Frostburg and to be able to represent my school at NIH, it really is encouraging,” said Asare, who enters her senior year in the fall. “I hope a lot more Frostburg students can be able to do this as well.”
Asare completed an internship at NIH in summer 2015 then continued independent study research at FSU with related experiments in a student-safe system involving a different bacterial species.
While working with NIH, she studied mutations of the Hfq3 protein found in “Bacillus anthracis,” the bacteria that causes anthrax. Researchers are familiar with how the harmless regulatory protein works in Gram-negative bacteria like “E. coli,” but they know little about how it works in Gram-positive bacteria like “B. anthracis.”
“My part of the research was a small part of a grander scheme of research for publication,” Asare said. “I was just looking at how these changes would affect the Hfq3 protein when transformed into ‘E. coli’ systems.”
Asare then created different mutations on the Hfq3 protein on different locations and recorded what happened. Where did the mutation occur? Would it still function if a mutation occurred? Did the mutation stop the protein’s ability to work? All of those observations were recorded.
What Asare and her colleagues initially found is that the distal face of the Hfq3 protein complex – a little like one of the sides of a donut – plays an important role for protein activity in “B. anthracis,” but more research needs to be done.
The hope of all of this related research is to ultimately find defenses against anthrax, which is often lethal.
The partnership for undergraduate research with NIH was set up by FSU Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Cathy Vrentas, who is a special collaborator at NIH. An Opportunity Grant by the FSU Foundation also supported a portion of the research.
“Molecular biology is pretty resource-intensive and requires a lot of time,” Vrentas said. “I wanted the students to be engaged in collecting research that leads to publication, and usually that requires a partnership.”
The partnership allowed six other FSU biology students – Lorenzo “Guy” Jones, Harrison Shore, Alexcia Aka, Elizabeth Meredith, Serge Owoukor and Bethany Henson – to be involved in a genetic screen this past academic year, looking at structure and function relationships in mutated Hfq proteins, Vrentas said.
This type of research is exactly what medical schools and research labs look for when accepting students or fellows, Vrentas said.
Vrentas worked at NIH as part of her post-doctoral fellowship, where she worked alongside anthrax expert Dr. Stephen Leppla, chief of the Microbial Pathogenesis Section at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Hfq protein expert Dr. Susan Gottesman, co-chief and NIH Distinguished Investigator at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, National Cancer Institute.
It was at NIH where Vrentas heard about FSU, where she worked beside 2014 FSU graduate Andrea Keefer of Union Bridge, who is completing a post-baccalaureate fellowship at NIH before she attends graduate school at Penn State University. Keefer will study food science at Penn State, where her courses will help combine her interests developed at FSU and NIH.
“I find pathogens really interesting – how they invade and evade our immune system – and I’m interested in biodefense,” Keefer said. “I think food science is a good way to mesh my interests.”
Keefer, who followed what is now known as the molecular biology concentration of the biology major, said that her undergraduate research with FSU Assistant Professor Dr. Rebekah Taylor and her upper-level classes helped prepare her for NIH and graduate school.
Her undergraduate research involved looking at immune structures in wild mice and fish.
“It was my first experience doing independent research not in a classroom,” Keefer said, adding that her work at FSU also helped her land an internship at Fort Detrick.
Vrentas also was the lead author on Hfq research that was published in the journal “Protein Science,” which Keefer also co-authored with other researchers.
Working beside world experts at NIH was initially intimidating for Asare, but Leppla and Gottesman were encouraging, and having Vrentas and Keefer there made the transition easier.
“They gave me so much support. Whenever I needed help, they were there to help me and never made me felt like an outsider,” Asare said. “Knowing Dr. Vrentas is really helpful. She is a professor, so she was able to break things down I wasn’t able to understand to help me conduct experiments more successfully.”
Asare also received a travel award to present her research last fall at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Seattle. She plans to apply to medical school to become a physician; she also wants to earn a master’s degree in public health.
“With this experience I actually learned that I do enjoy research, and if that research furthers my career along, I will take that opportunity to do it,” Asare said. “I know the amount of hard work that goes into research being at NIH and watching Dr. Vrentas work 40 hours a week there.”
Keefer plans to submit the latest Hfq research to an academic research journal for publication, and Asare will be listed as the second author along with Vrentas, Leppla, Gottesman and others.
“I think it’s great Eugenia gets to be on the paper as an undergraduate because it would definitely help her for her future goals,” Keefer said.