Sample America

Anthony D’Onofrio studies dirt…or the bac­teria that grow on dirt, to be more spe­cific. He is a post-​​doctoral researcher in the Antimi­cro­bial Dis­covery Center led by Pro­fessor Kim Lewis in the biology depart­ment and has started a non-​​profit edu­ca­tional orga­ni­za­tion, along with Pro­fessor Lewis, called Sample America to help him with a some­what impos­sible task: sifting through thou­sands of dirt and sand sam­ples from across the con­ti­nent, hoping to light on a novel antibi­otic compound.

Only one novel class of antibi­otic has been dis­cov­ered since 1962, when the field saw a surge in activity. The problem is, not all bac­teria like to grow in the lab — the con­di­tions just aren’t suit­able for these finicky bug­gers. Luckily, Lewis and another biology pro­fessor, Slava Epstein, have fig­ured out a few ways to coax them into growing on command.

With these new tech­niques in place, a flood of new bac­teria are avail­able for the finding and with them a slew of new antibi­otics (bac­teria pro­duce antibi­otics to kill off their neigh­bors). Thus, D’Onofrio has his work cut out for him.

So, what does anyone do when they have too big a job to manage alone? Enlist child labor of course. Well…not exactly. D’Onofrio has set up a non-​​profit orga­ni­za­tion that doesn’t just lighten his own load, but also gives high school and middle school stu­dents a chance to par­tic­i­pate in real sci­ence with real significance.

Sample America pro­vides class­rooms with every­thing they need to grow bac­teria from local soil sam­ples and get a “resis­tance pro­file” of each by growing them in the pres­ence of both common and rare antibi­otics.  Bac­teria that are resis­tant to rare antibi­otics are more likely to be resis­tant to other, yet undis­cov­ered, antibi­otics, which may be pro­duced by the soil’s bac­te­rial profile.

After get­ting the resis­tance pro­file, soil sam­ples are sent back to Sample America where Lewis’s lab car­ries a drug dis­covery process to iden­tify any new compounds.

It all boils down to a very lovely mis­sion state­ment: “…Edu­cating the sci­en­tists of tomorrow while finding cures for the world today.”