Mark Merchant, biochemistry professor at McNeese State University, spoke with Leesville High School students Tuesday to discuss his ongoing research project investigating naturally occurring antibacterial peptides in alligators to uncover a new class of antibiotics.
Merchant said he was first interested in this research when he noticed alligators who sustained serious injuries, such as a missing limb or tail, would not only heal rapidly, but also without any infections. So he set out to investigate in marshes to collect blood samples from crocodilians, which includes all alligator, crocodile and caiman species, to study their tissue and immune systems. After extracting the white blood cells, Merchant infused them with bacteria and discovered holes where it did not grow, proving there is something inside their white blood cells that kill bacteria. Merchant derived the term Zone of Inhibition to explain the area where bacteria cannot grow as well as measure the zone towards a variety of bacteria.
After experimenting with different bacteria such as pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterial found in soil, and citrobacter freundii and escherichia coli, bacteria found in humans, the white blood cells attacked and killed both. The reason he found this interesting he said, was because alligators' immune systems fought off bacteria, viruses and fungi they had never been exposed to. Another remarkable discovery he said, was that the cells also killed bacteria called candida albicans, yeast infections, and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), staff infections, which claim numerous lives every year. He stated since humans are dying from these infections and alligator white blood cells are killing them, then they might be able to develop antibacterial, anti-viral or anti-fungal drugs for human medicine.
"The way we think it works is that the outer coat of bacteria gives off a negative charge and the white blood cells give off a positive charge," he said. "So when opposites attract, the cells tear a hole in the membrane and therefore kills the bacteria."
Merchant said his is really excited now that his research team has isolated these proteins and have determined their structure and now are trying to synthesize them.
Students at LHS were surprised by a certain visitor Merchant brought with him; a four-year-old alligator. As the students exited the auditorium, they had the opportunity to touch and feel the texture of the alligator.
Donell Evans, head of science department at LHS, said by having Merchant speak with the students, they hope to help them understand what's being offered outside of high school in terms of science related jobs and careers. Also, they are trying to bring more awareness to the Science, Technology, Engineer and Mathematics (STEM) programs that were recently introduced to Vernon Parish. The students in her AP biology class were so captivated with Merchant's research that they asked to discuss it more in depth during Friday's class.
Page 2 of 2 - "I just think having a Louisiana college like McNeese State University being on the forefront with new antibiotics is amazing," Evans said.
Merchant's researched has been funded by several grants including a four-year Research Competitiveness Subprogram grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents, EPSCoR travel grants to speak at five national and international conferences, EPSCoR Links with Industry and National Labs (LINK) grant to travel to Argentina as well as most recently, a grant from National Geographic.