Mesenchymal stem cells

5 cool topics you can study with a biology major

It's an exciting time to be studying biology
Technology has advanced our ability to process and interpret large volumes of data, generating a gigantic leap in our understanding of the fundamental molecular mechanisms and processes controlling life.
Dr Nick Coleman

Associate Professor Nick Coleman examining green-fluorescent bacteria under UV light.

Microbes that biodegrade pollutants

“This work is primarily microbiology, but also involves genetics, biochemistry, chemistry, and ecology. It is fascinating to learn how microbes evolve, and learn to use synthetic toxic chemicals as food sources,” says Associate Professor Nick Coleman.

“They really are amazing … in the Coleman lab the motto is ‘microbes can do anything’.”

Nick’s expertise is in the areas of environmental microbiology and biotechnology, with a particular focus on molecular genetic analysis of bacteria capable of degrading pollutants.

“These microbes are useful for cleaning up contaminated sites. At the moment we are very interested in finding microbes that can biodegrade polyfluorinated compounds found in fire-fighting foams – these are very persistent contaminants at many air force bases and airports.”

Professor Glenda Wardle and researcher Stephanie Chen in the field

Professor Glenda Wardle and researcher Stephanie Chen in the field.

Population biology of the model plant Plantago lanceolata

People move plants all over the planet. This natural experiment is an opportunity to study how plant populations differ in their native and introduced ranges so that we can anticipate how species and communities are shifting under global environmental change. Professor Glenda Wardle states, "Most species are only studied for a short time and in a few locations, limiting our ability to design management strategies for both threatened species or problem species that we want to ensure don’t spread and damage ecosystems. However, by focusing on the widespread herbaceous species Plantago lanceolata L. (ribwort plantain) as a model system we can record the differences in survival, growth and reproduction across the geographic range of the species."

This project is part of the global PlantPopNet collaboration (a spatially distributed model for population ecology; with over 50 sites globally. Locally, in Sydney we are exploring the details of alternative reproductive modes such as clonality and the role of a long-lived seed bank in population persistence. These methods use high resolution genomic data sets that can identify clones within populations and state-of-the-art integral projection models that model varying levels of seed dormancy from stored seeds in the soil to determine how populations persist under different environmental pressures.

"Plant population modelling will play a key role in ecology forecasting which is an imperative given the current rates of regional and global environmental change. Anthropogenic climate change is reconfiguring ecological systems. Therefore, future-looking ecology is an imperative to link science to decision-making and will also contribute to fundamental ecological knowledge."

"Understanding the interaction between demographic and genetic factors will further enhance the ability for adaptive management of threatened species. Through the model system of P. lanceolata, PlantPopNet provides a novel lens to study the abiotic and biotic drivers of plant persistence, distribution, and evolution while addressing the need for spatially distributed experiments required to provide decision-making tools for complex large-scale problems such as climate change," says Professor Wardle.

mesenchymal stem cells

Mesenchymal stem cells growing on an extracellular matrix protein called tropoelastin. Photo taken by Dr Giselle Yeo at the Australian Centre for Mocroscopy and Microanalysis at the University of Sydney.

Stem cell engineering

Stem cell engineering seeks to understand and manipulate regenerative stems cells, which can be used for various clinical applications. Stem cells are increasingly being used to treat a number of diseases and to repair tissue injuries.

Dr Giselle Yeo, Early Career Development Fellow, says, “I explore ways to make stem cells grow faster, live longer, or make specialised tissues better. I also look at methods to make synthetic materials more compatible with the body or more useful for tissue repair by covering them with functional molecules that interact with the body's own stem cells.” 

“My research aims to understand and manipulate the fundamental properties of these regenerative cells, in order to create a more economically viable and functionally better starting material for stem cell therapies.”

“I work in the Charles Perkins Centre, which houses world-class cell culture, imaging and cell characterisation facilities which I need for my projects. The University is home to a vibrant, multi-disciplinary community of researchers, and I have formed productive collaborations with colleagues across Science and Engineering.”


Seahorses photo credit Jaquie Herbert.

Evolution of animal pregnancy

“My team’s work aims to understand the way in which pregnancy and the placenta has evolved in animals. We study the fundamental biology of pregnancy in a range of animals, including mammals, reptiles, sharks, and seahorses,” said Dr Camilla Whittington, Research Fellow.

“Our work is fundamental ‘blue sky’ research, which advances scientific knowledge. This is really important, because solving applied research problems can only come from a strong foundation of fundamental research, like the kind of work that my team does. For example, the reproductive biology of the species we work with is poorly understood, and yet the survival of a species depends on its successful reproduction.”

“It is essential to understand the fundamental biology of our unique native species if we’re going to predict their reproductive success under climate change, or even design successful captive breeding programs in the future. In addition, to thoroughly understand mechanisms underlying human pregnancy we need to study pregnancy in a variety of other animals. An evolutionary approach is a promising direction for medicine, and may shed light on the causes underlying the 30-50% of human pregnancies that fail in the first trimester.”

Dancing bees

Apis florea dancing bee, South-East Asian species. Photo credit - Ben Oldroyd.

Language of the dancing bee

Using their body to make specific movements, all species of honeybees make use of the ‘dance language’ to communicate the location of food sources and new nest sites.

“We can learn their language fairly easily and thus eavesdrop on the information,” says Professor Madeleine Beekman.

As humans continue to alter the landscape, it is important to understand what honeybees require to sustain healthy populations. Only by understanding the bees’ needs, can we assist the bees to remain in optimal condition for their own good and ours.

“I am very interested to learn how our native Australian plants and the introduced honeybees work together. Do they indeed work together, or are they in a bad relationship? Do honeybees have a negative impact on native species of bees, of which we have many in Australia? All these questions can be answered here at the University of Sydney, as there are many people interested in such questions, who come from different backgrounds and have different expertise.”

12 December 2018

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