Mountain Medicine

The mountainsides of Northwest Montana just might hold the cure for a pesky ear or sinus infection. For the past three and a half years, students at FVCC have been collecting lichens, fungi and plants from around the Flathead Valley and testing them for antibiotic properties. “Antibiotic Potential of Flathead Fungi and Flora” is an ongoing undergraduate research project that could someday result in new treatments for old ailments.

Drs. Mirabai McCarthy and Ruth Wrightsman, associate professors of biology at FVCC, are guiding the students through the process of conducting original research, an intense educational experience that students at four-year institutions may not have until their junior or senior years.

“The students get really valuable hands-on experience that they wouldn’t otherwise get in a classroom setting,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy’s plant science students are responsible for the first part of the research project – collecting and identifying flora and fungal specimens, drying and pulverizing them, and extracting their secondary compounds using an ethanol solution. After dehydrating the samples to remove the ethanol, McCarthy’s students place them in a freezer, where they are preserved until Wrightsman’s biotechnology students are ready to test them for antibiotic potential.

From the freezer, the samples are re-suspended in a liquid solvent and then pipetted onto tiny paper discs. The discs are placed on petri dishes which have been streaked with bacteria, and then everything goes into an incubator. Within 48 hours, Wrightsman’s students are able to observe where the incubated bacteria have grown, and more importantly, where they have not.

The flora and fungi samples with antibiotic properties will have a “zone of inhibition” around them, where no bacteria grew during the incubation process. Students measure the size of the zone and then record the data.

“We have discovered fungi and plants that might have antibiotic potential, and some that may not have been previously described,” McCarthy said. “So that’s exciting!”

The students involved in the project have presented their work at local, state and even national conferences, including the Botanical Society of America, American Society of Plant Taxonomy and Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative meetings.

“Antibiotic Potential of Flathead Fungi and Flora” is supported in part by a grant from INBRE (Idea Network of Biomedical Research Excellence) administered through Montana State University and sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. Thanks to the grant, participating students receive a small financial stipend to support the long hours they invest in the project. The grant also helps cover the cost of traveling to conferences, where in addition to presenting their work, the students develop important academic and career connections beyond FVCC.

These connections may open new doors for the students, whether it be transferring to a four-year university to pursue a bachelor’s degree or obtaining an internship or job in their chosen field. For FVCC students who embrace the opportunity to participate in an undergraduate research project, the possibilities of where to go from here are endless.