Detection and location of OP-degrading activity: A model to integrate education and research
The Environmental Sampling Research Module (ESRM) is an investigative/discovery module that provides undergraduate research experiences for students as part of an interdisciplinary research-based biotechnology curriculum at the University of Houston campus. As part of the ESRM, students collect soil samples from various locations to test for the presence of organophosphorous (OP) degrading bacteria. At the end of this research project students submit a research paper on their field and laboratory activities and discuss their experimental data and observations. Students also record the date, location of collection, and the results of testing the sample for the degradation of two pesticides, methyl parathion or paraoxon, in an electronic laboratory notebook (ELN). Each collection site is recorded on a Google Maps module and the data from student research activities is made available to other undergraduate students. This data is then used to generate a microorganism database of pesticide degrading activity and promote reading, critical thinking, and analytical skills as part of the curriculum. Our sampling of agricultural sites and wastewater within and around the city of Houston has identified seven distinct genera of OP degrading organisms, including Pseudomonas, Stenotrophomonas, Exiguobacterium, Delftia, Agrobacterium, Aeromonas, and Rhizobium. Collected strains exhibit phosphotriesterase-like enzymatic activity with isolates of Pseudomonas putida and Stenotrophomonas maltophilia capable of degrading both the phosphotriester paraoxon and the phosphorothioate methyl parathion. Using this collection of OP−degrading microorganisms, undergraduate students have evaluated their potential for enhancing the removal of harmful organophosphates and their toxic metabolites from contaminated agricultural soil and adjacent bodies of water. This analytical data can potentially be utilized for environmental and industrial applications in bioremediation and ecology providing an innovative method for integrating education and research. In addition, the versatility of the ESRM itself provides for easy and rapid adaptation into varying environmental science courses with significant potential for the discovery and isolation of new and unique organisms to be used as part of ongoing research in the laboratory.