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OWU Senior Receives Prestigious Research Fellowship

December 13, 2004

 [ Heather Costello
working with Professor Jann Ichida ] DELAWARE, OHIO -- Watching a feather float to the ground can calm the most excited child or excite the calmest scientist. Ohio Wesleyan senior Heather Costello is an excited young scientist.

The United States generates four billion pounds of discarded feathers each year and developing technology is finding new uses for the waste as film, composites, plastics, computer chips, roofing materials and even hurricane-proof housing. Heather Costello, a microbiology major pursuing departmental honors, is taking a cutting-edge look at feather degradation through microbiological research and earned an American Society for Microbiology undergraduate research fellowship to continue her studies.

Current methods of removing feather fibers from the quill are expensive and inefficient and led Costello to explore an alternative. "The current process of removing the fibers from the quill is to, using a large instrument developed by the USDA, align the feathers and use a large blade to separate the two sections,"says Costello, an Eastlake, Ohio, resident. "Because of the high cost of mechanization, a different method of separating the quill from the barbs would be preferred. Some of our fungal can quickly and efficiently separate the barbs from the quill. This may be a more resourceful method of reducing feather waste and allowing for more efficient utilization of the discarded feathers as paper, plastic product replacements and lighter more conductive computer chips."

 [ Heather Costello working with Dr. Laura Tuhela-Reuning ]Costello, the first Ohio Wesleyan student to receive a prestigious fellowship from American Society for Microbiology, entitled her study "Keratinase-Producing Microorganisms Isolated from the Plumage of Wild Songbirds."Costello worked with Professor Jann Ichida, adjunct instructor of botany and microbiology, and Dr. Laura Tuhela-Reuning, part-time assistant professor of botany and microbiology and zoology, focusing on the role of fungi in degrading feathers. However, the study of feather degradation is not new at Ohio Wesleyan, Professor Ichida and Dr. Edward "Jed" Burtt, professor of zoology, have been studying bacterial degradation of feathers since 1993.

Costello's work included cataloging microorganisms found on the plumage of 4,861 songbirds sampled during the past decade of research at Ohio Wesleyan. Among samples collected were fungi from Ohio Wesleyan's Kraus Wilderness Preserve. "Five locations at the Kraus Wilderness Preserve have been identified where the soil profiles differ."says Costello. "Samples collected from those sites were analyzed and tested for fungi that can hydrolyze §-keratin. The first experiment was a surprise,"says Costello. "When we opened the flask only the quills were left."Scanning electron microscopy done with Dr. Tuhela-Reuning in the G.W. Burns SEM labs at OWU gave information on the intricate details of fungal degradation of feathers.

"Later, we were able to test usnic acid, a compound found in Hummingbirds' nests, that had the ability to inhibit microbes. It also limited fungal sporulation."

The usnic acid experiment helped to secure another of Costello's research goals: checking fungi for any compounds that might limit the growth of Gram-negative bacteria, which include E. coli and Salmonella. "During a previous study at Ohio Wesleyan an antibiotic resistant strain of Salmonella was discovered in the compost pile,"says Costello. "We wondered if fungi could hinder the Gram-negative bacterial growth. So, we exposed several bacteria to active extracts from fungi to check for bacterial inhibition. Indeed, some strains did have an antibiotic-like quality."The study results suggest that fungal-bacterial interactions could free poultry-waste compost of dangerous Gram-negative bacteria.

Research has become a key part of Costello's Ohio Wesleyan experience. "I was looking at another school that was not nearly as research-oriented,"says Costello. "Now, I'm so glad that I chose to attend Ohio Wesleyan and get involved in the research the science community—and microbiology department in particular—offers." Jann Ichida shares Costello's enthusiasm for her decision to attend Ohio Wesleyan. "Heather's (Costello) enthusiasm for this project has been an inspiration for the first-year students taking the Honors tutorial class in 'Birds and Bacteria'. It is especially exciting that Heather has been collecting specimens from the OWU nature preserves as this information will continue to provide a strong microbiological data base."

However, Ohio Wesleyan is more than just a science department, and Costello is more than just a science major. Outside of Ohio Wesleyan's state-of-the-art Schimmel/Conrades Science Center, Costello works as a peer mediator, has spent two years as a resident assistant, and is a member of Women in Science club, and Mortarboard, Phi Sigma, and Omicron Delta Kappa honoraries. She plans to attend graduate school after graduating in May.

The American Society for Microbiology, headquartered in Washington, D.C., is the oldest and largest single biological membership organization—with over 40,000 members—in the world. The American Society for Microbiology undergraduate research fellowship aims at highly competitive students who wish to pursue graduate careers in microbiology. Fellows conduct research at their institution with an American Society for Microbiology mentor and present their research results at the 2005 American Society for Microbiology General Meeting in Atlanta. Each fellow receives a $4,000 stipend, a one-year student membership, and reimbursement for travel expenses to the general meeting. The organization awarded 24 fellowships in 2004.