Antibiotic resistance is a major issue in the field of microbiology and the main subject tackled in Dr. Ellen Aho’s introductory science class, “Microbes: Friend or Foe?,” a Credo honors course for non-science majors at Concordia. 

The course has two goals: breathe new life into introductory science and contribute to solving the problem of antibiotic resistance.

“This class is a part of the Small World Initiative, which is essentially an international initiative to address a worldwide health threat of antibiotic resistance,” Aho said. “There’s a big problem that bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics. At some point in the future, we’ll be back to a pre-antibiotic period. Looking for new antibiotic options isn’t very lucrative from a business perspective. It costs a lot of money to study and there’s not an incentive for drug companies to research it. This class is part of a crowdsourcing effort to address this threat.”

One of the ways the class contributes to this effort is by gathering and sending sample data from soils in Fargo-Moorhead to the Small World Initiative for testing.

“This may not sound like a huge impact, but when you remember the context of the Small World Initiative and that there are hundreds of students throughout the world contributing data, it adds up,” said Buching, a psychology and Spanish major.

The class found 76 bacterial isolates that passed expanded screening for antibiotic activity against various pathogens.

“By submitting our data on these isolates to the Small World Initiative, we are able to contribute to a major effort of combating dangerous microorganisms, particularly those that cause antibiotic-resistant infections in hospital settings,” said Beck, a global studies and sociology major.

Lab work is a major part of the class and one of the skills Aho hopes her students will take away from the course.

“I want the students to use those skills to assess things in their own lives,” Aho said. “How they vote, when they make decisions, whether or not they ask for antibiotics for family members in that situation.”

Students spend a significant amount of time working with bacterial cultures, testing isolates for antibiotic activity, and recording relevant data and observations. The students also take turns leading class discussions about books they read for the course.

“Business, psychology, and math majors are all really great for this project,” Aho said. “The antibiotic issue requires an interdisciplinary perspective because it’s about changing human perspective. There are only a few other schools from Minnesota who have done the training to be a part of this initiative. All schools set up the class differently, sometimes for certain majors or nursing students. Concordia’s Credo Honors Program is a really unique niche. It’s all about being part of something bigger.”

As a participant in the Small World Initiative, the class contributes its research to the crowdsourcing project for antibiotic discovery.

“It is pretty amazing to be able to complete our coursework and realize that our efforts are directly contributing to something as important and meaningful as combating deadly pathogens,” Beck said. “There is so much to learn from this class. Non-science majors can gain an understanding of how microbes pose both fundamental and dangerous roles in our everyday lives.”

Buching agrees that making contributions to the Small World Initiative has been a fulfilling experience.

“One of my favorite memories was finally holding my extracted antibiotic in my hands after having invested a lot of time into growing and testing the bacteria throughout the semester,” Buching said. “It felt like all the work had paid off. Even better was testing the antibiotic against two of our tester strains and finding that my antibiotic was active against one of them. At first, I was uncertain about whether I should take this class because I had not taken a lab class before, but it is designed to introduce you to a lot of different lab skills. As a psychology major, I can honestly say that ‘Microbes’ is one of my favorite classes.”