Jason Sello Assistant Professor, Chemistry
Jason Sello is searching for microorganisms that can function as antibiotics or contribute to bioenergy production. His research involves collecting soil samples and analyzing them to detect the presence of benevolent microorganisms. Recently, Sello has asked community members to contribute their own soil samples, exponentially increasing the number and type of microorganisms he can analyze.
This summer, Sello engaged high school students with his research. During Brown’s environmental leadership lab (BELL), Sello explained his search for microorganisms that naturally decompose biomass and aid biofuel production. He distributed vials and asked students to take samples from areas that might contain this sort of bacteria, such as the ground near a rotting tree. He and his lab are now in the process of analyzing these samples and hope to detect useful microorganisms.
Jason Sello is not the first scientist to involve lay people in public health research. In fact, drugs as important as Penicillin have been developed through community engagement.
In the case of Penicillin, biologist Alexander Fleming developed an early version of the drug: a fungus that was toxic to bacteria. But this fungus was too complex to be made chemically, and required a complex fermentation process that produced low intensity and low quality antibiotics.
The scientific community needed a way to produce Penicillin more efficiently, and turned to community members for help. Because the Penicillin fungus is a common organism, scientists thought they could locate a more productive strain by analyzing samples of the fungus found in communities near their research sites.
In Illinois, the USDA asked community members to bring in samples of moldy bread, cheese, and fruit. Sure enough, one woman’s moldy cantaloupe contained a high quality Penicillin fungus—much better than Alexander Fleming’s strain. Scientists genetically engineered the cantaloupe’s strain of the fungus and were able to produce and distribute high quality antibiotics on a massive scale.
Jason Sello hopes that his search for additional antibiotics and cheap biofuels will be aided by similar community involvement.
Currently, the production of biofuels is costly, both financially and in terms of environmental harm. That’s because companies use chemicals to break down biomass to produce biofuels, such as ethanol.
Sello thinks that microorganisms could be used instead of chemicals in the production of biofuels. By utilizing microorganisms that decompose the three elements of biomass—cellulose, hemicelluloses, and lignin—scientists would eliminate the need for costly chemicals. Although much attention has been spent in breaking down cellulose, very little has been focused on lignin, which makes up 30-40% of plant biomass.
In his search to find organisms that naturally degrade lignin, Sello relies on soil samples. Sello and his lab are limited in the number of samples that they can collect and the places from which they can collect them, which is why they’ve turned to community members for help.
During Brown’s BELL program—an environmental leadership program for high school students—Sello designed a pilot program for community soil sample collection. He asked these students to collect soil samples from places that might contain decomposing organisms, such as soil by a rotting tree. This process fostered a new appreciation for microorganisms in the young students, but also allowed for cheaper, exponential expansion of his research.
Sello is now in the process of analyzing soil samples from the summer and hopes to expand this pilot program, involving more community members in his search for benevolent microorganisms.