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Cross-cultural field trip to explore the tropics

A multidisciplinary team of faculty and students from the University of Reading, Massachusetts Dartmouth, Eafit and Universidad de Antioquia studied tropical microbiology in Colombia. Sampling areas include Santa Fe de Antioquia, Parque Arví and Urabá. This field trip aimed to determine characteristics associated with temperature and humidity variations.

Colombia201522 students from the University of Reading and UMassD arrived in Colombia to attend the International Course on Tropical Microbiology organized by Universidad de Antioquia and Eafit.

Five local students (three from Eafit and two from the UdeA biology graduate program) also attended the course, which brings together students from a variety of disciplines such as biology, marine biology, bioengineering and biochemistry.

Macroscopic life is determined by soil-based microorganisms, which account for more than 90% of the world species. However, studies conducted in Colombia provide little information on environmental microbiology.

Although the role of fungi and bacteria in conducting research in areas such as biotechnology, medicine and cosmetics is well known, little is said about their importance in the functioning of organisms.

groupThe idea of offering a summer course in tropical microbiology arose three years ago when professor Camilo Ramírez of the UdeA Institute of Biology and his colleague Robert Jackson of the University of Reading conducted research in Iceland in collaboration with the University of Akureyri.

Co-led by UdeA’s Environmental Microbiology Research Group BIOMA, the course brings together a team of microbiology experts including Robert Jackson (University of Reading), Valeska Villegas (Eafit) and Camilo Ramírez (UdeA), in the field of plant-associated bacteria; molecular studies experts Mark Silby (UMassD) and Javier Correa (Eafit); and Juan Felipe Blanco (Universidad de Antioquia), in the field of forest ecology.

The course focuses on the study of bacteria based on the environmental and climatic conditions of Colombia, and allows students to conduct research through sampling in tropical rainforests and dry forests.

“Microbiology fieldwork is not very common in England, so the course is designed to teach students to purify bacteria in their natural state. The region of Antioquia provides a good opportunity to conduct fieldwork since it has mountains twice as high as England’s highest mountain,” says Professor Jackson.

On the other hand Professor Camilo Ramírez says “the sampling areas were chosen based on the contrasts of temperature and humidity that exist in Colombia. People living in non-tropical areas mistakenly think that the climate of Colombia is mostly hot and rainy”. Both soil exploration and sampling were conducted through field trips to various locations including Parque Arví, Santa Fe de Antioquia and Urabá.

Exchange experience

“The course has been very interesting, we have had three field trips to different locations as well as lab work. I’ve also had the opportunity to meet other students from Colombia and USA. I’ve really enjoyed the experience of being in such a beautiful place, I’m still getting used to its mountains,” says Vicky Berry, a student of Biological Sciences who had never traveled outside of Europe.

In addition to collecting soil and plant samples, students had the opportunity to try some exotic fruits such as mamoncillo, corozo and tamarind.

“My motivation for attending the course was the challenge of working both inside and outside the laboratory as well as having the opportunity to experience a real-life research environment,” said Garrison Davis, an American biology student.

The students also had the opportunity to tour the campus and learn about UdeA, the home university of three faculty members who are responsible for the course seminars: Felipe Blanco, of the UdeA Institute of Ecology, and biologists Lucía Atehortúa and Camilo Ramírez. Other lecturers included Javier Correa and Nicolás Pinel of Eafit, and Walter Osorio of Universidad Nacional.

This international collaborative course allows students to engage in a multicultural environment, which is a very valuable life experience, professor Mark Silby said.

“This type of programs arise as a result of collaborative partnerships with colleagues in universities abroad,” says professor Ramírez. Hence it is necessary to fully understand not only the benefits of other ways of doing science but also the expectations that international students have about their stay in Latin American universities, especially in terms of facilities and the quality of universities.

Most of the sampling took place in the Urabá region of Colombia because of its hot and humid climate. Much of the area comprised between the Darien and Abibe mountains is deforested and is mostly made of pastures and banana plantations. Comparative analysis is done using samples collected in the town of Santa Fe de Antioquia – whose climate is hot and dry – and Parque Arví, a wet and cold nature reserve near Medellín.

Preserved forest remnants, which include El Cuchillo and Bajirá, are located south of Urabá in difficult-to-reach areas due to public order problems. Therefore, much of the research is done at Tulenapa – UdeA’s Center for Agroecological and Environmental Research –, which offers a wide range of research possibilities.

“Colombia boasts a wide variety of ecosystems ranging from rainforests and tropical dry forests to moorlands and cloud forests,” says professor Blanco, who was responsible for delivering seminars and lectures on forest ecology.

Multidisciplinary achievements 

“One of the major findings is that all of the sampling areas are home to certain types of bacteria that are resistant to adverse environmental conditions,” says Camilo Ramírez. According to professor Ramírez, Santa Fe de Antioquia has the lowest bacterial population.

Without the presence of soil-based organisms, soils would become infertile and plant growth could not take place. In addition, there are microorganisms called cellulolytic organisms that are responsible for the recycling of surface residue  – such as fallen leaves and dead plants – which are believed to be useful in land reuse.  On the other hand, this type of research might be useful for tracking new bacteria species and developing new antibiotics.

A new edition of the course is expected to be offered along with the Arctic microbiology course, which is taught in Iceland. A new study on soil microbial diversity will take place in the Arctic next year.

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