UA Little Rock Biology Student Wins Award to Research Cyanobacteria in Six Little Rock Lakes

Grace Rutter, a junior majoring in Biology at UA Little Rock, has been awarded $2,750 from the Arkansas Department of Higher Education’s Student Undergraduate Research Fellowship for her project to study the dynamics of cyanobacteria in six recreational lakes in Little Rock. Cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, is a type of nitrogen fixing bacteria that resides in water and other moist environments. This type of bacteria converts nitrogen gas from the air into a solid microorganism that is beneficial to plants.

While cyanobacteria contributes to the aquatic ecosystem, it can also be harmful to humans and other types of organisms due to its production of harmful toxins. Scientists have discovered a connection between cyanobacteria and a specific form a dementia in Guam. Rutter and her mentor, Dr. Scott Woolbright from the UA Little Rock Department of Biology, will investigate the presence of cyanobacteria in six recreational lakes maintained by Little Rock Parks and Recreation. With this investigation, she will use new microscopy techniques to look for unforeseen microbial interactions. One technique she will use is “double labeling of oligonucleotide probes fluorescent in situ hybridization” (DOPE-FISH) which will identify different species of bacteria associated with cyanobacteria. Other methods such as electron microscopy cannot distinguish these groups as easily as DOPE-FISH.

To conduct the test, Rutter will visit a lake in Little Rock monthly or twice-monthly over the next year to collect water samples and process in the lab. As the cyanobacteria becomes visually present in the water sample, they will scrape the remaining sediment off of the floating colonies and then process the samples. After the samples are processed, they will then be embedded into either white resin or paraffin wax, and later fixed onto glass.

Rutter is fascinated by organisms and their relationships within an ecosystem.

“I have had an ongoing interest in the relationships between organisms and the factors that affect them, both positively and negatively.  I view an ecosystem like a web, where factors that affect one organism can then ripple through the web and affect many.  This relationship between cyanobacteria and other microorganisms surrounding it is what Dr. Woolbright and I will be studying over the next year.  I am thrilled to have this chance to pursue funded research as an undergraduate at UALR.”

Although many studies have investigated the non-living factors that correlate to cyanobacteria, few studies have thoroughly studied cyanobacteria’s biological correlates. By investigating the biological factors that relate to cyanobacteria in the Little Rock ecosystem, it will be easier to determine what actions are needed to remove harmful toxins from the local ecosystem and keep our community healthy.

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