HomeResearchRainforest Expedition and Laboratory (REAL): Engaging Undergraduates in Science Through the Discovery of Biological and Chemical Diversity

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Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory (REAL): Engaging Undergraduates in Science Through the Discovery of Biological and Chemical Diversity

Research Summary

Scott Strobel’s Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory course introduces undergraduates to research by giving them an opportunity to discover novel microorganisms in the Amazonian rainforest and screen them for natural products with applications for human health and the environment. The students learn about biodiversity, the process of scientific inquiry, and the open-ended possibilities available for scientific investigation.

With the 2006 HHMI professor grant, we established the Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory (REAL), a three-part program that introduces undergraduates to research by giving them an opportunity to discover novel microorganisms and potentially beneficial bioactive products. The central premise of REAL is that biological and chemical diversity is an engaging way for novice scientists to make original and useful observations about the natural world.

Our focus is on endophytes, microorganisms that live on healthy plants. Estimates suggest there are more than one million endophytic fungi, only a small fraction of which have been characterized. So students have an opportunity to identify organisms significantly different from those characterized before.

REAL begins with a spring semester course that prepares students for the expedition and subsequent laboratory research. Topics include botany, ecology, microbiology, plant and microbe taxonomy, chemical characterization of natural products, molecular and structural analysis, and commercial product development. Students come up with a plant-related research question based on their scientific interests and develop a research plan to address that question. They are required to find a Yale professor who can suggest assays to screen for compounds related to their research. The students spend spring break on a two-week expedition to the Amazonian rain forest in South America, where they collect plant samples.

Back on campus, the students use the samples to culture new microorganisms in a summer laboratory course. They become the experts on the new organisms they culture, isolate, characterize, and name. They screen these microbes for molecules that could have beneficial applications for human health or sustaining healthy ecosystems. One student in the program sought to identify compounds for treating Alzheimer’s disease. Another explored the ability of endophytes to degrade plastic. Since 2006, more than 120 students from Yale University and the Catholic University in Ecuador have participated in the program. We collected more than 2500 plant samples and isolated about 3000 endophytes, many of which are quite novel. In the process of doing field and lab work, the students learned about biodiversity, the process of scientific inquiry, and the open-ended possibilities still available for scientific investigation.

Because it is unlikely that their research can be completed during the summer, students have the option of continuing their work over subsequent semesters in Yale laboratories. Research from the REAL program has resulted in 10 papers in journals, including PLoS ONE, Microbial Ecology, Nature Chemical Biology, and Science. More than 50 percent of the students who participated in REAL pursued PhD or MD/PhD degrees. These results indicate that the REAL model for undergraduate student research can impact student outcomes.

We will also seek to disseminate the principles of the program to other institutions. Even the most novice scientist can collect plant samples and culture microbes. That, coupled with the diversity of endophytes and abundance of those remaining to be characterized, makes REAL a program that can be adapted to many learning environments. To make this possible, we have published a program manual and related materials as resources for institutions wanting to implement a program like REAL.

Research in the Strobel Lab

Our laboratory investigates the structure and function of RNAs including ribozymes, the ribosome, and riboswitches. We are interested in how RNA, which is composed of building blocks best suited for a role in storing genetic information, can catalyze biologically essential chemical reactions and bind selectively to small molecules. To explore this question, we use chemical, biochemical, and biophysical methods ranging from organic synthesis to x-ray crystallography. We have demonstrated that RNA uses catalytic strategies that are strikingly similar to those of proteins, including catalysis promoted by active-site metal ions and the use of catalytic cofactors. Using biological diversity discovered through the undergraduate REAL program, we are also exploring the enzymes responsible for biofuel production from cellulosic biomass.

Last updated May 2014

Scientist Profile

HHMI Professor
Yale University
Biochemistry, Structural Biology