Biol 1771*

Special Topics in Biology: Plant-Associated Microbes - Friends or Foes?

1.0 unit

Barbara N. Kunkel, Ph.D.

Professor of Biology

Plant and Microbial Biosciences Program
Molecular Microbiology and Microbial Pathogenesis Program
Molecular Genetics and Genomics


This is a research-based laboratory course offered by Dr. Barbara Kunkel in the Biology Department. The small class size and laboratory setting of the course is intended to foster development of student-professor mentoring relationships. Enrollment in this course is by permission of instructor ONLY. Research Question. Microbial communities play very important roles in the lives of plants and animals. For example, in nature as well as in agricultural settings, the communities of microorganisms that grow near or on plants influence the growth and overall health of the plant. These plant-associated microbial communities are highly complex, and are comprised of thousands of different species, including bacteria and fungi. However, neither the role of individual microbial species within the larger microbial community, nor how such a community is beneficial to plants, is well understood. Natural microbial communities contain many potential pathogenic organisms that can potentially infect and cause disease on their hosts. This fact leads to the question: How can these organisms grow in proximity to, or even on their hosts, without causing disease? One hypothesis is that these organisms may have additional roles, when in the context of a larger microbial community, that can ultimately be of benefit to their host. We will investigate these questions by characterizing a collection of natural isolates of potential plant pathogenic bacterial strains from the genus Pseudomonas. Students will spend two hours per week in lab characterizing the new Pseudomonas isolates. Over the course of the semester, students will be exposed to a variety of fundamental topics in biology including: microbiomes, beneficial and pathogenic plant-microbe interactions, bacterial cell biology and genetics, and key concepts in molecular biology and biochemistry. The students will also meet with Dr. Kunkel for one hour per week to discuss a variety of topics chosen to explore: i) basic concepts in chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology, ii) learning and study strategies, and iii) other topics related to thriving at WUSTL. Pass/Fail. 1.0 unit