Cells and Instruments, but no Folsom Prison Blues

Brian Wuertz, Warren Wilson College


In my previous post, “Hiding in plain sight”, I introduced DOSS, a compound that has been recently identified as a probable obesogen. We are especially concerned about the potential of this compound to cause obesity symptoms in developing children through exposure from their mothers. While DOSS is in many products we use daily, such as homogenized milk and makeup products, it is commonly prescribed to pregnant women in the form of Colace stool softener. I am investigating both how much DOSS is in certain places in the body and how it may promote obesity.

One of the main concerns about obesity is that it elevates the risk of developing other diseases such as diabetes or cancer by causing a state of chronic inflammation (Bianchini 2002).  Chronic inflammation in  adipose tissue is regulated by immune cells, including macrophages. Macrophages are immune cells found throughout the body that help to fight against infection by recognizing invading bacteria and engulfing them in a process called phagocytosis, literally meaning to eat the other cells. In addition to phagocytosis macrophages are important regulators of the larger inflammatory response by secreting proteins that tell other cells to initiate or maintain a state of inflammation (Fujiwara 2005). This inflammatory reaction may be induced by DOSS. We have seen evidence of increased inflammation and obesity in mice treated with DOSS, so in order to figure out what causes that I am focusing on macrophages because of the way they regulate inflammation.

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I am isolating macrophages from breast milk samples under this hood in a sterile environment to make sure they are not contaminated with bacteria.

One way to study the inflammatory response of macrophages is to expose them to DOSS and then see if they produce the inflammatory proteins. Instead of trying to measure the secreted proteins, we can measure how much RNA is made in the cell. The RNA is the translator molecule that takes the plan for the protein from the DNA and makes it available for the cell to read and make the right protein. I identified genes for four different inflammatory proteins to measure the RNA so we can test if DOSS causes the macrophages to make more of any of them. I am testing macrophages that I am isolating from human placenta and breast milk tissue because the developing child is influenced by inflammation in the placenta and breast milk. Macrophages in these tissues could be the source of inflammation that influences how the child develops.

Okay so we have talked about cells, but what about the instruments? In my last post I introduced my instrument of choice, but did not call it that. It is not a guitar or a saxophone, but the HPLC, or high performance liquid chromatograph. This is simply a fancy instrument used to separate chemical compounds by forcing them through a tiny filter column filled with tiny beads. Some compounds stick more to the beads than others, so when you flow a liquid through the column the compounds come out of the column at different times. It is essential to separate the compounds in a sample because then you can measure the amounts of individual compounds.

We want to know where DOSS goes in the body, so we need to be able to measure how much of it is in a sample. I am working to get a system up and running to measure the amounts of DOSS in samples from different cells and tissues. We want to be able to measure DOSS in humans and in marine mammals such as dolphins. Dolphins are exposed to DOSS in the COREXIT oil spill dispersal agent that is applied to large and small scale oil spill issues along coastlines and in harbors. Dolphins are an important sentinel species, meaning that they can provide insight into human health issues.

I have to prepare a column and get the right mixture of solvents to make DOSS come off of the column in a timely fashion and in a way that we can measure it. The measurement is actually done with a mass spectrometer, which measures allows us to identify the compound based on how much it weighs. The number of atoms and types of atoms in the compound determine the mass of the compound. This mass is how the instrument measures the compound. The technique I am using is therefore called liquid chromatography mass spectrometry or LC-MS and the instrument is also referred to by LC-MS. Hopefully by the end of the summer I will be able to find beautiful data with this instrument that will make a coherent tune rather than a jumble of notes.


This is the MS part. It measures the mass of the compound and then breaks it apart and measures the mass of the pieces of the compounds and the amount of the compounds.


This is the LC or liquid chromatography part of the LC-MS instrument. Most of the work is figuring out the best solvent system to the sample through the small column with the red tag on it.

Funding for this REU program is generously provided by the National Science Foundation and hosted by the College of Charleston. Dr Demetri Spyropoulos at the Medical University of South Carolina is graciously hosting my research project and providing mentorship.



Bianchini, F., Kaaks, R., and Vainio, H. (2002). Overweight, obesity, and cancer risk. The Lancet Oncology 3, 565–574.
Fujiwara, N., and Kobayashi, K. (2005). Macrophages in Inflammation. Current Drug Target -Inflammation & Allergy 4, 281–286.

Grac Attack!

Aaron Baumgardner, The University of Akron

The only thing more pervasive than the constant thoughts of, conversations about, and stress from Gracilaria vermiculophylla in Dr. Erik Sotka’s lab is the invasion of this red alga that is occurring along the coasts of North America and Europe (Sotka, et al. 2013). After only a few short weeks in Charleston, I have seen how prevalent and successful this seaweed is. The success of G. vermiculophylla along the southeastern coasts of the United States is due in part to the established mutualism between it and the decorator worm Diapatra cuprea. This mutualism provides a secure site for the seaweed to grow (Kollars, Byers, and Sotka unpublished manuscript), but it does not explain the success of G. vermiculophylla to thrive in environmental conditions that differ from its native Japanese range.

G. vermiculophylla colonizes a mudflat in Charleston Harbor by clinging to tube-building decorator worms. Credit, Erik Sotka

G. vermiculophylla colonizes a mudflat in Charleston Harbor by clinging to tube-building decorator worms. Credit, Erik Sotka.

Researching G. vermiculophylla can help us understand how aquatic invasions occur. Do introduced populations evolve novel characteristics or do they simply benefit from the phenotypic plasticity of their source populations? To answer this question, it is necessary to test plasticity in response to varying environmental conditions on native and non-native populations (Huang, et al. 2015). Since G. vermiculophylla has spread outside its latitudinal range and into high salinity environments (Kollars, et al. 2015), I will be testing the plasticity of native and non-native G. vermiculophylla populations to a range of temperatures and salinities. Photosynthetic efficiency will be measured using a PAM fluorometer to provide a more objective way to quantify stress (Rasher and Hay 2010).

I would like to thank the College of Charleston for this internship opportunity, Dr. Erik Sotka for mentoring me on my project, and the National Science Foundation for funding REU programs.

CofClogo    nsf-logo


Huang, Q. Q., et al. (2015). Stress relief may promote the evolution of greater phenotypic plasticity in exotic invasive species: a hypothesis. Ecology and Evolution 5(6), 1169-1177.

Kollars, N. M., Byers, J. E.,  & Sotka, E. E. (unpublished manuscript). Invasive décor: a native decorator worms forms a novel mutualism with a non-native seaweed.

Kollars, N. M., et al. (2015, in review). Development and characterization of microsatellite loci for the haploid-diploid red seaweed Gracilaria vermiculophylla. PeerJ.

Rasher, D. B., & Hay, M. E. (2010). Chemically rich seaweeds poison corals when not controlled by herbivores. PNAS 107(21), 9683-9688.

Sotka, E. E., et al. (2013). Detecting genetic adaptation during marine invasions. Grant proposal to the National Science Foundation.

Making Renewable Energy An Even Cheaper Alternative!

Yoel Cortes-Pena, Georgia Institute of Technology


Fig 1. Picture of me

I’m Yoel Cortes-Pena, a chemical engineering senior student at Georgia Tech and future scientist and entrepreneur.  My research interests lie in renewable energy and environmental sustainability. Additionally, although I am an engineering student during the day, I am also part of Hip-Hop culture at night. My hobbies include dancing, beatboxing and rapping. Here is a link to my channel. 

Through this blog, I want to share with you my research experience as part of the Fort Johnson Undergraduate Summer Research Program. When I received the acceptance letter, I was surprised and happy that I would be working with Dr. Harold May in Microbial Electrosynthesis. This new technology uses microbes to fix carbon dioxide and electrons from an electrode to produce fuels and highly valued chemicals such as hydrogen, methane and acetate.


Fig 2.Picture of Microbial Electrosynthesis Reactor. The graphite rod on the left is the cathode (electron donor) and the rod on the right is the anode (electron acceptor). The left side of the reactor is being sparged with CO2. The microbes, located on the left side of the reactor, are fixing the CO2 and producing hydrogen (visible bubbles) and acetate (dissolved in solution).

One of the many applications of microbial electrosynthesis includes the storage of energy without contributing to carbon emissions. Solar, wind and other renewable energy forms output a variable amount of energy that tends to exceed public demand, especially during off-peak hours. Consequently, this surplus electricity becomes stranded energy that cannot be used. Microbial Electrosynthesis can utilize this excess or stranded energy and store it in fuel, valorizing the use of renewable energy technology.


Dr. Harold May’s Enviromental Microbiology lab is affiliated to the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC).This project is possible thanks to funding from the NSF College of Charleston Summer REU program and the Grice Marine Laboratory. Lab space and facilities are provided by the Hollings Marine Laboratory.


New Philadelphia to Charleston

Aaron Baumgardner, The University of Akron

Coming from the landlocked small town of New Philadelphia in the Midwest, I feel like I’m dreaming when I realize I’m spending my summer researching in Charleston, SC. I’m thankful for the opportunity that my mentor, the College of Charleston, and the National Science Foundation has given me to learn and grow in my scientific ability.

However, I do not believe I would be where I am today if it weren’t for my Aunt Jane. She is the only member of my family with a background in science, and even though she is hundreds of miles away at UPenn, she is always an email or phone call away. She has always shown an interest in my academics and will always be there for any advice I may ask. She has helped me develop my professionalism and offered insight on which graduate schools are worth going to.   Because of her, I can finally realize it’s not a dream. It’s reality that I’m spending my summer in Charleston, SC. It’s because I’ve worked hard in school and reached out for opportunities for me to mature as scientist. And I owe her so much for pushing me to succeed.

Thank you Aunt Jane!