Hamline News

Biochemistry Summer Research Notes: Dean Young and Professor Betsy Martinez-Vaz


Rising Hamline sophomore Dean Young spent the summer learning about the possibilities of bioremediation in addressing chemical pollution. Due to COVID-19, he did not grow bacteria or prepare and read slides via microscope instead, his work leveraged the power of computers to model possibilities.

What is the title of your project?

Bioremediation of Cyanoguanidine

How would you explain your project to someone who knows nothing about it?

My project focuses on cyanoguanidine, an agricultural additive and emerging pollutant. This water-soluble chemical moves rapidly and extensively in soil. For this reason, cyanoguanidine ends up in lakes, rivers and was even detected in milk. Once in the environment, it causes a number of issues such as heightened pH and loss of biodiversity. Removing a chemical that is dissolved in water or in soil (such as cyanoguanidine) is extremely difficult and often cost-prohibitive. Fortunately, we can provide an elegant solution to this problem by harnessing the power of microbes.

Certain microbes will naturally break down pollutants - they see it as food - and we can boost this process to clean up chemicals. This capability, known as bioremediation, is an exciting technology shown effective on both small and large scales, even being a major player in cleaning the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. However, in order to utilize these capabilities of microbes for a given chemical, we need to know information: the type of bacteria involved, the protein they use, the products they break the pollutant into. My goal this summer was to investigate the answers to these questions for cyanoguanidine.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your research methods?

Originally, my project was at the bench, growing bacteria, isolating colonies and running biochemical tests. The pandemic dictated a switch to in silico or computer-based methods where I joined a larger project looking at a number of chemicals used in agriculture, including my original compound of interest, cyanoguanidine. Working with fellow Hamline student Caleb Rosenthal, Hamline faculty collaborator Dr. Betsy Martinez-Vaz, a team at the University of Minnesota, and a computer programmer from Bethel University, we constructed a database of organonitrogen compounds and how they break down in soil. Moving forward, we can use the database information for bioremediation efforts.

What is the biggest challenge of your project?

It’s hard to identify a single greatest challenge, but an unexpected and humourous challenge did arise when entering information into the database. After conducting literature searches and using a number of bioinformatics and computational tools, I had some data and pictures to enter into the website. The hard work had been done, or so I thought - after all, how hard could it be to enter pictures into a database? Little did I know that the formatting process would prove a time-consuming task of trial and error. Although my colleagues helped me find a way around it, it did end up being trickier than I expected!

What has surprised you about the project?

My project title contains a word many may be unfamiliar with: bioremediation. Throughout the summer, I was continually made aware of the potential of this biotechnology method. It is incredible to think that we are able to use microbes to solve our environmental issues, a method that has shown repeated success in a wide variety of applications. As we seek to combat the issues of nitrogen pollution and other chemical hazards, I suspect bioremediation will become an integral part of our strategy.

How does the project fit with your academic or career goals?

The chance for any undergraduate to do research is a special opportunity I highly recommend. It prepares one well for future employment or graduate school, providing both skills and experience. The Summer Collaborative Undergraduate Research (SCUR) program at Hamline is especially helpful as it provides a supportive environment and community of researchers to interact with. My advisor, Dr. Martinez-Vaz, has been extremely encouraging and assistive throughout the process. After just a summer of research, I now have several new skill sets, a better understanding of how to find answers to questions in science, and a jump start on future classes covering material related to my project. I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of research at Hamline!

Written by Young and Martinez-Vaz. Lightly edited by staff.