Why researchers are creating a tiny petri dish to use under water

Two UPEI researchers, an engineer and microbiologist, are working together to create a miniature petri dish to be used in underwater research. 

'The impact of that discovery could be huge and save many people'

Russell Kerr, left, and Ali Ahmadi have been awarded $250,000 from the Government of Canada’s New Frontiers In Research Fund (NFRF). (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Two UPEI researchers, an engineer and microbiologist, are working together to create a miniature petri dish to be used in underwater research. 

Russell Kerr is a professor in the departments of chemistry and biomedical science, and Ali Ahmadi is an assistant professor in UPEI's Faculty of Sustainable Design Engineering who specializes in micro-fabrication. 

The first generation of the dish was called the MD Pod and they're now working on an even smaller version: the Micro MD Pod.

MD stands for microbial domestication pods and they will be embedded in sponge and coral.

Huge potential

Kerr says microbiologists can currently only culture one per cent of the bacteria and fungi that are present in any environmental sample because the samples don't survive the trip back to the lab.

The pods will be small enough to be inserted into this coral. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

"That's very important because bacteria and fungi are our most prolific source of therapeutics or drugs, 75 per cent of all antibiotics come from bacteria and fungi — from one per cent of the microbes that we can thus far culture," Kerr said. 

"So the challenge is, can we learn how to culture some of the missing 99 per cent.

"That's the challenge I've been working on for the last few years but when I met Ali it was clear that he had some expertise that could really catapult our efforts to the next level."

Transition period

Kerr said the pods allow for what he calls a transition domestication period. 

Kerr will take samples of bacteria and then insert the pods into sponges and coral to 'domesticate' them. This is San Salvador in the Bahamas, their usual dive spot. (Submitted by Russell Kerr)

"We don't take bacteria directly from soil or a marine sponge to a petri dish in the lab," Kerr said.

"With our pods, we get basically mini petri dishes and put these mini petri dishes back in the environment so they are in the lab-type setting but back also in the original environment."

The idea, he said, is that more of the bacteria make it back to the lab.

"More bacteria will survive and bring them into the lab after the domestication period, that we can grow and culture and study for their ability to produce therapeutic agents," Kerr said.

Saving lives

For engineer Ahmadi, the project hits close to home.

The latest version of the pod is being tested to see if it's ready to be placed in the marine environment. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

"Obviously I got very excited because, as an engineer, I'm very eager to solve problems that are real-world problems and can contribute to saving people's [lives]," Ahmadi said.

"Beside my professional reasons, I have lost a family member to cancer so I see the potential in discovering new therapeutic agents and bioactive compounds so I am personally and professionally very motivated."

Both researchers point to the potential, if the pods are successful.

"Knowing that even if we discover a few new bacteria, the impact of that discovery could be huge and could save many people's lives," Ahmadi said.

Russell Kerr, left, and Ali Ahmadi say they don't know yet how long the bacteria need to stay in the pods.. (University of Prince Edward Island)

"It could be absolutely huge," Kerr said. 

"Given the life-saving drugs that have come from the one per cent of culturable microbes, if we can culture five to 10 per cent that, potentially, could lead to fantastic discoveries of new therapeutic drugs."

The project received $250,000 in federal funding through the New Frontiers In Research Fund. 

A UPEI student inserts an earlier version of the pod, called an isolation chip, that was being used before Ahmadi joined the project. (Submitted by Russell Kerr)

The researchers said they don't know yet how long the bacteria need to stay in the pods.

They are currently testing the pods in the lab in an aquarium with sediment and hope to use them in nature for the first time later this year.

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About the Author

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water rowing or walking her dog.


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