Biology Faculty Members Receive $744,055 NSF Grant



July 9, 2004 – Two faculty members in the Department of Biology at Southeast Missouri State University have received a $744,055 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to collaborate on research with scientists at Duke University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Dr. Walt Lilly and Dr. Allen Gathman, both professors of biology, along with several Southeast students, will be working over the next two years to complete the genome sequence for a mushroom called Coprinus cinereus. The project is part of the Microbial Genome Sequencing Program of the National Science Foundation. The work is one of about a dozen projects funded nationally by NSF from 79 proposals.

Gathman said the Southeast researchers will be looking to sequence about 5,000 genes in the organism and to close the remaining gaps in the known sequence. This will be the first basidiomycete – the phylum of fungi that includes Coprinus cinereus – to have its genome sequenced and fully described.

The work will involve growing fungus in a laboratory in Rhodes Hall under a variety of conditions, including different temperatures, and then extracting RNA to create cDNA libraries.

A cDNA library is a collection of DNA sequences that code for proteins. The research at Southeast ultimately could benefit commercial mushroom growers and those who work with mushrooms.

“The information we come up with will help with knowing how they grow and function,” Gathman said.

He said some human and plant pathogens are found in this group.

“If somebody is looking for a treatment, knowing the genes and how they work together is important,” he said, adding these organisms have a rich evolutionary history and provide experimental models fundamental to an understanding of a wide range of biological processes.

In addition to generating cDNA libraries, the Southeast researchers will be developing and maintaining an interactive Coprinus cinereus world-wide genetics/genome database.

Pat Pukkila, the primary investigator on the project at the University of North Carolina, has worked with Coprinus cinereus for many years. Lilly said he and Pukkila became acquainted several years ago while collaborating on a project. He said Pukkila was a primary proponent for getting the initial draft sequence of the Coprinus genome which was completed last year by the Whitehead institute at MIT.  Her role will be to coordinate the project and to map the genes to the 13 chromosomes of Coprinus. Leading the work at Duke will be Fred Dietrich who will close the gaps in the sequence.

Southeast student researchers on the project are Christian Barr of Cape Girardeau, Bruno Murphy of Jackson, Mo., and Michelle Carlson of Eden Prairie, Minn.

Lilly said the Southeast students will interact with student researchers at Duke and the University of North Carolina. “This is a unique opportunity to get hands-on experience that will help us make informed career choices,” said Murphy, who is thinking about pursuing medicine as a career.

Carlson said she is excited to actually work on a topic discussed in class. She said she hopes to present results from this project at a conference in the future. 

Lilly said the project will “provide students with experience in cutting-edge molecular biology. This is as ‘cutting edge’ as students can get at any university in the country,” he said.