By Gordon Dritschilo
CASTLETON — Dr. Preston Garcia said it is very difficult to see what he does.
“I’m a microbiologist,” the Castleton University professor said last Thursday. “We work with a bacteria called Sinorhizobium meliloti. It’s a bacteria you can find in the soil. It’s a common organism, and it affects plants.”
Garcia’s work is getting boosted, the school announced this week, by a $300,000 federal research grant, part of a total of roughly $560,000 in grants CU is splitting with St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, where Dr. Catalina Arango Pinedo is doing work that complements Garcia’s. The grant funds Garcia’s research into the bacteria for three years.
Garcia said bumps on the roots of peas, beans and other legumes are full of the bacteria he is studying.
“They fix nitrogen, so the plant can grow better,” Garcia said.
Garcia and Arango Pinedo are studying how the bacteria processes nutrients and how two different systems within their makeup control their metabolism.
“There’s some big biological questions we hope to answer about gene regulation in bacteria in general,” he said.
On a more practical level, he said better understanding of the bacteria could lead to developing ways of increasing crop yields.
“You need less artificial fertilizer if you have more of these organisms around,” he said.
It is also, he said, providing an excellent opportunity for those of Garcia’s undergraduates who work with him.
“They spend all summer in the lab working with me,” he said. “It’s microbiology, so it’s a lot of stuff you can’t see because it’s small. We’re sitting at the bench, manipulating the bacteria at the DNA level.”
If that sounds like the beginning of a scary science fiction story, Garcia says not to worry — he and his students are not creating GMOs and the bacteria they work with are not allowed out of the lab.
“It’s a huge bonus for Castleton, myself, my students,” he said. “This will provide an opportunity for our students for the next three years to get cutting-edge research experience they couldn’t get at a lot of other schools, especially smaller schools.”