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Biology professors receive grants for collaborative research

July 15, 2002

Coastal Carolina University biology professors Michael Ferguson and Mary Crowe have received grants through the Collaborative Research Program, a state funding program which encourages partnerships between faculty researchers at South Carolina universities.

Ferguson, associate professor of biology at Coastal, has received an $88,000 grant to study the genetic makeup of the environmental bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa (Pa). Pa is associated with urinary tract infections, wound and burn infections, infections of the cornea, and chronic lung infections in cystic fibrosis patients. The bacterium is highly resistant to most antibiotics and flourishes in many diverse environmental conditions.

The purpose of the study, which is being co-conducted by Dr. Joan Olson of the Medical University of South Carolina, is to examine the role of three toxin genes (and their proteins) in the progression of disease caused by Pa. Ferguson and Olsen will analyze the various combinations of toxins to try to learn how these combinations are controlled by the Pa bacteria.

This study provides a model for studying the concept of an emerging disease - one that moves from the environment (or from animals) into human beings. "The most publicized emerging disease is Ebola, which was thought to be a virus that only affected monkeys but later became a threat to humans," says Ferguson. "Since Pa was originally a soil organism (and still is) but now causes human diseases, we can compare strains from the soil with strains in the clinic to gain an understanding of how the bacteria might evolve into a disease-causing agent. This might also give us a 'backdoor' understanding of how this organism might be controlled."

Crowe, associate professor of biology at Coastal, has received an $8,422 grant as part of a $24,989 study researching the thermal ecology of fiddler crabs.

The study, co-conducted with professors Brian Helmuth and Renae Brodie of the University of South Carolina, will examine the contrasting behavior patterns of male and female fiddler crabs, particularly how their different body temperatures affect their habitation and mating practices.

"If male and female crabs function best under different thermal conditions, the consequences are likely to be broad," says Crowe. "For example, thermal segregation by sex might impinge on reproductive behaviors, necessitating one or both sex to risk dangerous conditions during courtship and mating. The sexes may also experience dissimilar selective pressures as they encounter different predators or navigate different terrain."

Crowe will also be responsible for helping incorporate the results of the study into standards-based lesson plans in K-12 education in the region.

The Collaborative Research Program is sponsored by the South Carolina Biomedical Research Infrastructure Network (BRIN) and the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

The program enables faculty researchers at both public and private institutions of higher education across the state to form and develop inter-institutional research teams. One of the purposes of the program is to bring together faculty from predominately undergraduate institutions with researchers from Ph.D. granting universities in order to ensure a broad base of expertise and to integrate cutting-edge research in undergraduate and K-12 education.