By Makenzie Duncan
There’s not many ways you can ease into my research, so I’ll just come out and say it: for my senior comprehensive project, I will be making poop soup.
Now that I have that out of the way, I can actually tell you why this research is, in my humble opinion, beyond intriguing and eye opening.
When I attended a meeting concerning the projects being offered for senior comps, Dr. Kloepper mentioned a project focused on bat guano that was an intersection of chemistry and biology. My classmates thought I was insane when I said I was interested, but as Dr. Kloepper says.. “Everyone is trying to cure cancer. No one is looking at bat poop!” And so she and I took on this project even though it was not in either of our wheelhouses, and I am so happy that I chose this road.
Specifically, my research will be conducted using multiple depth guano samples from a cave of Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) in New Mexico. These samples will travel from New Mexico to Auburn University in Alabama, where Dr. Kloepper, myself, and multiple amazing colleagues will be studying bacterial growth and differences in bacterial populations in guano of various ages. Over the course of 10 days on Auburn’s campus, we will be using the samples to make poop soup and plating this solution on multiple kinds of agar, including tryptic soy agar (TSA), a non-selective agar, blood agar, which will test for hemolytic activity of the bacteria, and a specially designed agar that we will compose to mimic the cave environment, which will be high in nitrogen content. We will then be using rRNA analysis to identify what bacteria populated the samples.
Guano studies in the past have mostly been aimed towards defining the microflora of different species of bats or discussing the possibility of bats being vectors for human disease. In my research, the guano will be studied and considered in the context of the extremes present in the cave environment. Aspects of guano, including the extensive populations of bacteria it contains, play an imperative role in the ecosystem of the cave. Establishing an understanding of guano at different conditions in the cave can provide speleologists and bat enthusiasts alike with information regarding the differences in bacterial abundance of samples and how this could affect nutrient cycling and other ecological interactions in the cave itself.
We have already begun composing a paper for a pilot study using samples from the same cave that we will be taking our samples from this summer. I was able to do a lot of statistical analysis (yay SPSS!!) to determine what genera and species were the most prevalent across all the samples and the significant differences in abundances between the treatments. I have gotten to know Microsoft Excel pretty extensively, if I do say so myself.
My research has already been a whirlwind in which I have learned and developed my knowledge about a subject that had never crossed my mind before this year. I look forward to where this research can take us and I am thankful for the opportunity to do something that stands out and serves an important purpose while being able to navigate a new area of research with remarkable advisors. Stay tuned for our Auburn Extravaganza!