RU biology faculty member plunges into the jungle for research


Assistant Professor of Biology Joy Caughron delves into the unexplored universe of microbial communities at the Las Piedras Biodiversity Research Station in Peru.

During a nine-day stint in the jungle, Assistant Professor of Biology Joy Caughron began Radford University's contribution to a giant global project in a narrowly focused way.

Caughron's December trip to Peru enabled her to delve into the unexplored universe of microbial communities in a specific location at a specific time - the Peruvian Amazon during the wet season.

"I am keenly interested in finding out if pristine microbial communities, such as those found at Las Piedras Biodiversity Station, have the resources to remediate negative human impacts on the environment," she said. "During the trip, I explored and sampled a gradient of sites from pristine to mildly impacted to heavily impacted."

Caughron is also excited about the opportunity she and her students have to participate in the monumental Earth Microbiome Project (EMP), a proposed multidisciplinary effort to analyze microbial communities across the globe.

With support from the RU Office of Sponsored Programs, Caughron was able to collect soil and water samples in differing zones of human impact for which she will develop microbial community profiles from their collective DNA sequences. Ultimately, she said she hopes to test the hypothesis that human activity can be remediated by the normal functioning of pristine microbial communities. Simply put, she is testing the optimistic hope that the "solution to pollution is dilution."


Camera trap photos of a tapir caught at a colpa, or salt lick, near Las Piedras Biodiversity Research Station in Peru at which Assistant Professor of Biology Joy Caughron and members of the 2015 RARE scientific research team will work this Maymester.

Caughron's wet season sampling follows dry season sampling last October and will be a springboard for continued work by members of the upcoming RARE expedition that will be based at the research station during Maymester 2015.

"It was a chance to do my dream job, science in the jungle," she said. "I was able to get snapshots of microbial activity from a few specific sites for sequencing. From a microorganism's point of view, there are an infinite number of environments each with distinct communities, capabilities and impacts on human and environmental health."

According to Caughron, there are roughly a billion bacterial cells in a gram of soil. Caughron hopes to share this and subsequent data with the EMP's Microbial Biomap for Planet Earth, an initiative to catalog the world's rich microbial diversity and do for the environment what the Human Microbiome Project is doing for the body.

"There is so much life there," Caughron said. "To look at the microbial activities and metabolic processes of such diverse environments will help us understand how microbes contribute to the health of the humans and the environment."

During the upcoming Maymester, Caughron and three students – Cassie Bonavita, Steve Gallas and Hanna Mitchell - will focus on microbiology during the RARE expedition.

Other RARE student teams will be focused on botany, invertebrates, vertebrates and biomedical research. Each team member will also develop an individual original research project for implementation at the research station in the Madre de Dios River region that lies at the headwaters of the Amazon River.

The trip will be under the guidance of Caughron and Assistant Professor of Biology Jason Davis and in conjunction with Tamandua Expeditions, which focuses on biodiversity research, conservation and responsible volunteer/adventure travel.

"Regardless of what they do next, these students will have an experience that will stay with them for their lives," Caughron said. "It is the ultimate hands-on opportunity for them to grow as scientists in a place that has an amazing abundance of life."


Assistant Professor of Biology Joy Caughron (left) and Ozzie Lane (right) recover a colleague (overboard) who is sampling the creek bottom at the Las Piedras Biodiversity Research Station in Peru.

Feb 10, 2015