Hamm helps discover potential bacteria species

Tabi Jozwick

Fifteen potentially new bacteria species have been identified with the help of Paris Hamm, a Western Illinois University graduate research assistant.

“This is a part of my graduate thesis,” Hamm said. “It started with the surveillance of whitenose syndrome out in the West, New Mexico and Arizona. Then looking at the natural microbiology of bats and seeing if there are any existing bacteria there, possibly from the phylum Actinobacteria, which is known to produce antifungals to see if there’s any kind of resistance to the spread of this developing fungal pathogen that wiped out millions of bats across the U.S. and Canada.”

Western’s associate professor of Biological Sciences Andrea Porras-Alfaro said that whitenose syndrome is an emerging fungal disease in bats that has no cure.

“Bats are important because they control the insect population,” Porras-Alfaro said. “They are pollinators; they have a lot of important functions in nature.”

Hamm said that her research led not only to finding bacteria that can treat white-nose syndrome but also the discovery of the 15 new bacteria species.

“We found after testing now 1,800 bacteria that there are a large number of novel bacteria from the genus Streptomyces with anti-fungal capabilities against this fungus,” Hamm said.

Hamm said that due to antibiotic resistance, the 15 newly discovered bacteria species might not only help bats but people as well.

“We’re always looking for new antibiotic drugs, and this area of bacteria are known for antitumor producing compounds, antibiotics, antifungals and immunosuppressants,” Hamm said. “There’s a lot of future drug discovery potential.”

Hamm said that in order for a new species to be discovered, the DNA of the new species has to be compared with the DNA of similar species.

“For a new species to be discovered, you have to look at (the) genotype and phenotype,” Hamm said. “For the non-scientific community, you’re looking at the DNA and it should have some kind of different DNA than other species.

“Also there should be kind of some of a morphological or phenotypic difference as there is a physical appearance difference, production difference and there’s threshold levels that you have to meet for it to be called a new species.”

Hamm said that she ran a multigene analysis on the bacteria that led to her discovery of the new bacteria species.

“We look at the different areas on the genome and identify how these regions differ from other species,” Hamm said. “We only did this in-depth DNA analysis on species that had antibiotic capabilities because we were very interested in those because we’re looking for bacteria that inhibit fungal pathogens.”

Hamm said some collaborators and herself will have input in naming the 15 newly discovered bacteria species and there are guidelines for their Latin names.

“You’re not allowed to name anything after yourself, but I have already came up with some of the names,” Hamm said. “For some of the scientists in the group, I think that we’re going to name some of the species after them.”

Hamm said that she was really surprised of her discovery.

“In the world of prokaryotes, like microorganisms, there’s a lot of room for discovery,” Hamm said. “We haven’t really identified what the diversity is, but I was really surprised that there are so many novel species.”

Hamm said that she conducted the tests in the fungal lab instead of on bats because permission had to be obtained before tests can be conducted on bats.

“Hopefully some of the preliminary data that we found can be used in the future,” Hamm said. “Maybe for the bats, maybe for wider applications, maybe for human drug research, I mean that there is a ton of possibilities.”

The bacteria islets swabbed from bats were from New Mexico and Arizona and shipped to Illinois for testing.

“You can’t send the fungus westward because the pathogen hasn’t technically hit that area yet,” Hamm said. “We want to keep the pathogen contained to where it already hit and so we do all the testing with the fungus here in Illinois.”

Hamm and her collaborators wrote “Western Bats as a Reservoir of Novel Streptomyces Species with Antifungal Activity” on their discoveries and were published by the Applied and Environmental Journal of the American Society of Microbiology, and is one of the spotlights in the publisher’s March issue.

Hamm collaborated with Western’s Department of Biological Sciences, the University of New Mexico, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Geological Society during her research. Financial assistance for the research came from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Agricultural Resource Funding through the USDA, the New Mexico Game and Fish Department and Cave Conservatory, the Eppley Foundation, the National Park Service, the Western National Park Association and the Bureau of Land Management.