Tiny things

Typically, when I explain my project to someone I get one of three reactions—a blank stare, the question “what do gut microbes have to do with reproduction?” or the comment, “Wow-that is so cool!” Of course, if I could have the choice, #3 would be mine, but unfortunately, the link between my work and the work of others in my group isn’t immediately obvious—yet. Yes, I’m a microbial ecologist in Reproductive Sciences. 

I know, it sounds strange, but let me explain.

The Reproductive Sciences Group has been working on the link between rhino diet and infertility for nearly a decade, and has determined that what we feed our southern white rhinos contains high levels of plant estrogens (“phytoestrogens”) that likely cause infertility in the species.

As a graduate student studying giant panda gut microbiomes, the rhino project interested me. You see, microbes have been shown to change phytoestrogens in other species. In some cases, these changes result in the production of more estrogenic metabolites. As a microbiologist, I wanted to know if this was happening in rhinos. I reached out to the Institute’s Reproductive Sciences group as a graduate student, and luckily a position was available when it came time for me to do a postdoc. 

My project is pretty comprehensive, and I’m developing interesting skills in the process. I’ve become an expert at identifying rhinos purely based on looking at their horns, a skill that comes in handy quite often while watching rhinos for fecal collections in the wee hours.

At the Institute, I do all the lab work leading up to the sequencing of the DNA of all the microbes found in rhino dung to see which microbes are present and what proportion they are present. Then, I must condense approximately 300 samples into a single tube to send to my collaborators at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for sequencing. I ship the tube and I pray it arrives, and then a few days later I download about millions of DNA sequences and begin figuring out what it all means—a task that at times seems daunting, but something I typically enjoy. 

This work only makes up a part of the picture. I’m also interested in the way the microbes can change the phytoestrogens.

That leads me to the second part of my research-analytical chemistry; identifying the tiny molecules that are estrogenic in the rhino diet and feces. To do that you need some pretty sophisticated instrumentation and by sophisticated, I mean expensive.

For this I rely on my graduate school lab at the Mississippi State Chemical Laboratory. I spent two months there developing methods for extracting these estrogenic compounds from rhino feces and conducting analysis. No one had tried to look at all of our compounds of interest in feces before, and turns out, it’s really difficult.

Although there were a few failures, we ultimately persevered and we made it work. That’s what you do in science, and you can’t give up when things aren’t working because this information is so important.

Looking through the data so far, we see differences in microbial communities and what appears to be differing groups of estrogenic compounds as well. Once we’ve finished data analysis, we can then begin to understand how these microbes may be involved in rhino infertility, and that will be critical in understanding how we can help prevent these issues in our captive rhinos. 

So here I am, a microbiologist in a world of reproductive scientists, but I’m getting to combine two of my great loves—microbiology and conservation. On the surface, it may appear to some that I don’t quite fit in, but it actually works. Microbes pervade every aspect of biology, so making room for others like me in other disciplines is only a matter of time. I’d like to say the Reproductive Sciences Group is ahead of the curve. 

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