URI students visit Belize to study microscopic organisms

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. – September 12, 2008 – A group of five University of Rhode Island students and a biotechnology professor spent three weeks in Belize in July and August on a mission to collect and study single-celled organisms that could provide insight into evolution and contribute to the development of new drugs.

“Single celled organisms are the most highly evolved cells on the planet, and they may hold the secrets to the origin of stem cells,” said Kenneth Uhnak, assistant professor of biotechnology at the URI Providence Campus. “These organisms haven’t been studied in Belize since the molecular era began.”

The students collected water samples in jungle pools, swamps, on the roots of plants and even in rain gutters in Belize City and soil inside a Mayan temple. They then spent dozens of hours examining the samples under high-powered microscopes to find and identify various organisms.

“This was a fantastic opportunity to do some research in an area where there has been little research conducted before,” said Steven Shelales, a URI senior from Bristol. “The chance that we might discover something brand new was a real motivating factor for me.”

“I had never even taken a class in cell biology before, so the trip introduced me to a whole new field and shed light on the world that lives below,” added Cassius Spears, a URI senior from Ashaway. “It was also great to learn about a new culture and visit temples and ruins.”

Most days started out with a morning lecture and discussion on subjects like stem cells or the origin of multi-cellularity, and after lunch the students collected samples or worked in the lab. Their microscopes were equipped with digital photography and videography capabilities so the students could record images of the cells they found. It wasn’t unusual for them to continue their lab work late into the night.

“Looking at the organisms under the microscope, seeing things you could never dream of, and seeing them right before your eyes swimming around was pretty spectacular,” Shelales said. “We got a lot of oohs and aahs from the group every day.”

Of the 50-60 species of single-celled organisms collected by the team, two species may be new to science, Uhnak said. “Both of them we found attached to a water lettuce plant, and they had a snake-head shaped cell. That’s a very unusual shape for a cell.”

The University of Rhode Island has been bringing students to Belize every year since 2000, but this was the first year that the trip was geared to science students. The University is considering establishing a research center for urban studies and other disciplines in the country.

The group was hosted by Roy Polonio, a native of Belize and a graduate of the URI microbiology program who teaches at Belize University. The Belize government donated 35 acres of land to Polonio for use as a non-profit teaching and research facility.

“This trip gave me my first experience doing field research,” said Shelales. “Just to be involved in the scientific process is invaluable to anyone who is interested in science. Trying to discover something new is what science is all about.”

“I’m considering a career in microbiology now,” Spears said. “It can help us learn about where life came from, how a group of cells turns into an embryo, and so much more. You can answer these questions by studying the simplest forms of life. It’s a roundabout way of finding the answers to some of life’s toughest questions.”