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Taking Flight In Genomics

Andy VanDomelen (‘22) developed an interest in photography as a teenager. When he was on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, his father borrowed his camera, and the two bonded through an interest in bird photography. This interest morphed into an intrigue in different bird species, which ultimately led VanDomelen to study bacteria samples from turkeys in microbiology and molecular biology professor David Erickson’s lab.

Taking genomics classes and working with Erickson opened VanDomelen’s eyes to the large role bacteria plays in the lives of humans and animals. For example, millions of microorganisms live on human bodies. While researching, VanDomelen learned how the environments we live in affect the microbiomes inhabiting our bodies, specifically E. coli bacteria found on farm turkeys and wild turkeys.

“We were looking at these E. coli samples and comparing their antimicrobial resistant profiles,” explains VanDomelen. “We were trying to see how they react to different antibiotics, and seeing if those reactions differed because the turkeys were raised in opposite environments."

“When we talk about the ecology of animals, like turkeys, we can’t discount the fact that these bacteria may be influencing their behavior and metabolic reactions,” VanDomelen says. “We must take into account the microbiomes living on and among them.”

A grey and black turkey is in focus in the foreground, while another one stands next to it in the background.
The wild turkeys in this photo are similar to the ones students in the Erickson lab collected E. coli samples from.
Photo by Unsplash

Results of the study showed that E. coli bacteria found on farm turkeys are more resistant to antibiotics. Metal ions, such as copper and silver, have been used more frequently in an effort to eliminate E. coli in poultry populations. VanDomelen’s research demonstrated that in a copper-infused medium, E. coli isolated from wild turkeys were more tolerant than E. coli in farmed turkeys. There was no significant difference between the groups in the silver-infused medium.

VanDomelen received a College Undergraduate Research Award for this mentored research about domestic and wild turkeys.

According to VanDomelen, it’s extremely important as a scientist to keep your research and knowledge updated. He hopes to continue his journey in genomics as a lab assistant or wild birds researcher. “In your research, you could think you have the answer, but then a year later, someone publishes results that refute your answer,” VanDomelen says. “I would really like to do something that challenges me and pushes me to keep improving.”