In Pursuit of Microbes

JU News Desk
Published: July 2018

Microbiology impacts us in more ways than we can imagine and Vaishnavi Gowda is busy fathoming the invisible world

In the process of writing her thesis, these days Vaishnavi is accompanied by her laptop everywhere. Her ready smile and relaxed demeanor is far removed from the stressed look on the faces of some of the research scholars penning down their thesis. A PhD in microbiology looks much closer now, than when she commenced her research studies fouryears back. At present, she is pursuing her studies under Dr. Srividya Srikumar.

What set her on the track to research? A pretty intriguing answer follows this query and reveals what sealed the deal for her. “To be frank I never imagined pursuing a career in research. But, our Chairman, Dr. Chenraj has a knack of picking out talent. He suggested that I should do a PhD and he was right. Today I count myself amongst the lucky few who absolutely love what they do.” Vaishnavi is quick to point out she was never studious in the ‘cram as hard as you can to top the exams’ kind of a way but she was eternally curious on what, why, how of anything and everything. Once she decided to pursue a PhD, Jain (Deemed-to-be University) was a natural choice as she was an alumnus of the University. She had completed her Masters in biotechnology here.

Despite her nonchalant attitude towards being studious, the topic she has chosen is certainly the result of a deep-seated desire to gain knowledge and find new answers. At the heart of her research lies a keen interest she harbours in the process of fermentation which took her to microbiology, a discipline she seems to have completely fallen for. “Microbiology is a pure field like biochemistry. It teaches you how to understand functional dynamics of single cells and multicellular organisms,” she informs. Vaishnavi’s research took shape from the work she had done in her M.Phil. Her research work is focused on an alternative application of a microbially produced biodegradable polymer. During her MPhil, she worked on biodegradable polymer Polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) production using alternative carbon sources and optimisation of PHB production using starch as a substrate. The polymer produced is a biodegradable homologue of synthetic plastic with comparable physical properties.

What is special about her current topic? It is of great value to the pharmaceutical industry. One of the biggest challenges faced by the pharmaceutical industry is the expense involved in developing a product. It takes years of research and often very high investment in the processes involved. Resolution of enantiomers is an expensive process. “Enzymes on the other hand are stereospecific and target a specific type of enantiomer. R-3-hydroxybutyrate (R-3HB) is the isomer of pharmaceutical importance and PHB is a rich pool of these monomers. The significance of my Ph.D. work is cost effective production of R-3HB through semi-continuous degrading of PHB using a specific enzyme system. The organism capable of PHB degradation was also isolated as a part of my Ph.D. work and the PHB used in the study was produced in the lab,” explains Vaishnavi.

She further adds, “Microbial production makes processes cost effective by cutting down the price of downstream processes. Enzymes, especially, have established a strong dominance in various areas of production of high value products from the textile to food industry. Here, we propose a novel approach of increased production of enantiomerically pure, important pharmaceutical monomer through a simplified process of polymer degradation using in-vitro and in-vivo degradation using crude enzyme.” As Vaishnavi points out during her conversations, the topic is novel and hence there were quite a few challenges on the way. These was a trial as well as an opportunity to learn and grow.

“The biggest challenge for me was to optimise quantification of 3HB. Given the novelty of my work (this is the first report of optimising PHB production for 3HB), we (my guide and I) were faced with a challenge to work out a 3HB detection assay.” She relates how she tried every rational and irrational approach till she came across through endless reading, review and pursuit of research papers.

While the 3HB detection assay was a puzzle to be solved, mutation studies proved to be the bane of Vaishnavi’s existence for six months. “I was working on random mutagenesis to produce a mutant capable of accumulating large quantities of 3HB (again a first report for the organism I work with). Spent months on varying concentration of various mutagens and even went to the extent of creating a cocktail of mutagens but to no luck.”

Fortunately, she had a guide who had taught her early in the research that negative results are also results as long as one can justify it. In her quest to figure it all out, she stumbled on a research paper that helped her solve the dilemma. She sighs, “It was a big relief.”

Despite all the ups and downs on the way, she still finds microbiology to be a fascinating subject. She feels it is like the grammar of life sciences. “Only when you start working in the field of microbiology, you realize the strong hold visually invisible organisms have on your daily happiness, especially on days when experiments fail and you don’t understand why! Never will you belittle anything based on its visibility and size. Jokes apart, Microbiology is the field to study if you want to pursue a career in life sciences.

Once you’re proficient in microbiology, switching fields to more application based studies becomes easier,” she says to the students who are keen on taking up this field.

Vaishnavi’s future plans revolve around further research in life sciences. She intends to take her quest forward into new frontiers.

“I feel life science students are taught to hail and praise Darwinism and other principles of genetics.

I’ve always wondered if there is an alternative explanation to what we are taught.” Her ‘wondering’ took her to epigenetics and she is keen to understand if this is the ‘other’ explanation! “Epigenetics is to life science what quantum physics is to Newtonian physics: truer and more acceptable but often not acceptable by the purists. I want to pursue a post doc in epigenetics. After that I will definitely come across something else which interests me. But one thing is for sure, I will be working on understanding something,” she signs off.