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Travel Story: A student’s perspective on the 18th International Symposium on Microbial Ecology

By Brady O’Conner, PhD Student at McGill University

From August 14th to 19th, 2022 I attended the 18th International Symposium on Microbial Ecology (ISME) in Lausanne, Switzerland.  ISME is the world’s most prestigious conference devoted solely to microbial ecology and environmental microbiology.  During the conference I had the fortune of watching presentations from leading experts on everything from microbial diversity in deep ocean sediments, to microorganisms living off sulfur and methane in High Arctic springs.  Attendance at the conference increased my knowledge of new cutting-edge methods in the field and provided new perspectives I could apply to my own research.

I also presented my research at the conference.  Under the supervision of Dr. Lyle Whyte and Dr. Richard Léveillé from McGill University, I have been developing a small, automated assay which can detect and determine the diversity of metabolically active microorganisms in extreme environments such as the Arctic and Antarctica.  Our goal is to one day have the assay fly on a spacecraft to Mars or the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn so that it may search for signs of life.  The opportunity to present my research at this conference would not have been possible without the support of the QCBS Excellence Award.

One of the express goals of space agencies around the world, including NASA, is to search for life in our solar system and the universe. However, despite this stated goal, no instrument capable of directly detecting life has flown in space since NASA’s Viking spacecraft landed on Mars in the 1970s.  Ultimately these missions did not find evidence for life on Mars however in the succeeding half century we have learnt much more about the planet including the presence of organic carbon and water, and potentially habitable environments in the subsurface.  This new knowledge necessitates a second look for life on Mars, this time with the next generation of life detection instruments of which my research will play a role.  The microfluidic Microbial Activity MicroAssay (µMAMA) is a sensitive assay I am developing which uses redox chemistry to detect the metabolism of living microorganisms.  As a microorganism lives and grows, it must obtain energy from its environment, usually in the form of an electron from an organic or inorganic molecule.  When the energy from the electron is spent, the electrons must be deposited somewhere just like our garbage is deposited in a trash can.  In the case of the µMAMA, a dye is provided which grabs the spent electrons and in doing so changes colour.  This colour change is measurable and is the result of microbial metabolism.  This strategy of detecting metabolism should not only be capable of detecting life on Earth but also life on other planets because we believe that all forms of life, even alien life requires energy to survive.

Presentation at ISME of the work I’ve done to develop the µMAMA was immensely valuable because it not only exposed me to new ideas but also allowed me to receive feedback from other researchers on how to improve the assay design.  The QCBS Excellence is thus a valuable award which can  provide students studying in the province of Quebec the opportunity to expose themselves and their research to the world’s leading scientists which only promises to improve the biodiversity research being conducted in the province for years to come.

About the author: Brady O’Connor is a PhD Candidate studying microbiology at McGill’s Macdonald Campus. “I’ve always had an interest in science and space exploration which is what led me to my current research under the supervision of Dr. Lyle Whyte and Dr. Richard Léveillé.  I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over the world for my research, including the Arctic and Antarctica and I hope to continue working in extreme environments for years to come.”

Post date: December 08, 2023


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