Research News

Biologist duo brings Wolbachia curriculum to students, citizen scientists around globe

A curriculum directed by husband-and-wife biologists at Vanderbilt University is responsible for helping countless thousands of college students, schoolkids and citizen scientists worldwide contribute to research on microbes using cutting-edge technology.

Seth Bordenstein, an evolutionary geneticist and biology professor, and Sarah Bordenstein, a microbiologist and senior research specialist, run Discover the Microbes Within! The Wolbachia Project  to provide hands-on learning on microbes and biotechnology. It is named for one of the most common bacteria found in animals, especially insects. They ship out – free of charge to users – the materials needed to collect, preserve and extract DNA from insects and their associated microbes.

The students then test samples for the Wolbachia bacteria, which cunningly control sexual reproduction in insects and other arthropods. Students also record the findings in a database used by academics to track the pervasiveness, geography and gene sequences of Wolbachia.

“Students begin by asking questions about the environment in their communities, what insects might be there and, if those have Wolbachia, form a hypothesis on the potential impact of this association,” said Sarah Bordenstein, a former high school teacher and expert on the genomics of Wolbachia and their viruses. “They’re learning experimentation techniques, classifying insects and working with bioinformatics – all high-level learning being done in university labs.”

Almost a sure thing

Working with Wolbachia makes sense because it exists in 4 out of every 10 insect species, said Seth Bordenstein, who has published 42 papers on this bacteria. That means it’s likely the students and budding scientists collecting them will experience the thrill of discovering Wolbachia, potentially even a new evolutionary lineage, for themselves.

Wolbachia are one of the great pandemics in the history of life, from a biodiversity perspective,” he said. “It also has biomedical relevance, because Wolbachia block the transmission of pathogenic viruses such as Zika and dengue from mosquitoes to humans. We can use a symbiotic bacteria in insects to help humans.”

In cooperation with the Peabody College of Education and Human Development, the Bordensteins recently brought the curriculum to high schoolers in the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt, which invites public school students to campus one day a week for advanced instruction in those subjects. With guidance from school director Angela Eeds, the students collected insects around their homes and placed them in alcohol-filled test tubes for preservation.

Back in the classroom, the students researched their insects’ genus and species, then worked with the Bordensteins to extract the DNA. In a later lesson, the students would learn about DNA sequencing and how their findings contribute to this particular field of research.

Rionna Anderson, a 10th-grader at Cane Ridge High School, said she enjoyed the project’s challenges.

“Right now, we’re classifying these spiders and flies,” she said, holding up her three-member research team’s test tubes. “I think it’s amazing we’re getting to extract DNA at such a young age. Science is so much more than what’s in your textbook.”

The Bordensteins began their work as scientists and science educators locally in Massachusetts, but as more people learned about the discovery-based curriculum, they found themselves shipping supplies across the U.S. and internationally. There are also ongoing collaborations between countries including Israel, Singapore, Switzerland and the United States.

Real-life experience

Christine Girtain, director of Authentic Science Research for Toms River High School South
and Toms River High School North in New Jersey, said she learned the Wolbachia curriculum from the Bordensteins last year and is now passing it along to other teachers and her high school students. She’s partnering with a teacher at Ben Zvi High School in Givatayim, Israel, so their students can share information on Wolbachia in insects overseas.

“Sarah and Seth are amazing at supporting the efforts of the high school students and teachers,” Girtain said. “They answer questions by email, review research proposals and supply primers for the work. Working with them feels like winning the high school research mentor lottery.”

The Bordensteins said they are able to handle the Wolbachia Project’s growth with the help of laboratory members and private donations, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and, most recently, the National Science Foundation.

“We are continually looking for new investments and support for this timely project as it becomes far bigger than we originally intended,” Seth Bordenstein said. “We’re so pleased that it’s making a positive difference in science education around the world.”