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Sources: Kelsey Hixson-Bowles,;
and Michael Herman, 785-532-6741,
Photo available. Contact or 785-532-6415.
Video available. Access at
News release prepared by: Kristin Hodges, 785-532-6415,

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Katie Bowles at the microscope



MANHATTAN -- A Kansas State University student is studying how climate change affects one of the most numerous animals on the planet to gain insight into how these changes affect larger organisms like humans.

K-State's Kelsey Hixson-Bowles, sophomore in biology and English from Olathe, is studying how nematodes, which are microscopic worms, respond to changes in the environment and how genetic pathways might be involved in the response.

"A greater understanding of how nematodes interact with different bacteria and respond to environmental changes at the level of genes and the genome can help us learn more about these interactions and responses in higher organisms, such as plants, animals and humans," she said.

Hixson-Bowles is working with Michael Herman, associate professor of biology and co-director of K-State's Ecological Genomics Institute, in his ecological genomics lab. Ecological genomics is an area of biology that uses genomic techniques to answer ecological questions.

"We're using nematodes to begin to tease out the mechanisms that might be involved in the response to climate change," Herman said. "Nematodes are used as a model for other organisms, but also in their own right as they make up a large number of the total organisms on the planet. It's important to understand their functions and behaviors."

Hixson-Bowles said she is studying the responses of worms in five different bacteria found in samples from Konza Prairie experimental plots that have been treated differently, such as with nitrogen.

"When the environment changes, the nematode's food source, bacteria, also potentially changes," she said.

Hixson-Bowles is looking at the potential effects of the bacteria by monitoring the worms' behavior differences, and by counting the number of progeny the worms produce and how long they live, which measures worm fitness. She also is using a model nematode, C. elegans, to study genetic pathways. She is working with worms that lack various pathogen defense genes and analyzing how they respond to different bacteria.

Herman said changing environments present many challenges to organisms because they have to respond quickly to short-term changes and also for longer periods. He said nematodes have been used to understand the response of organisms to bacterial infections, called innate immunity. Studies have found genes involved in the infection response of several bacteria that are important human pathogens.

"Nematodes, which grow in the soil and in compost, did not evolve in the presence of these sorts of bacteria," Herman said. "We are studying the responses to more relevant bacteria to better understand the responses and how they might work to shape communities of nematodes."

Research from parts of the ecologic genetics study has been published in the June 2009 PLoS Genetics journal. Hixson-Bowles' project is supported through the K-State Division of Biology's Ecology, Evolution and Genomics Research Experiences for Undergraduates program that is funded by the National Science Foundation. She also earned an undergraduate research fellowship from the Kansas Idea Network of Biomedical Research Excellence program to continue her work in the fall.

Herman said Hixson-Bowles' double major in biology and English gives her an advantage in research.

"She brings a little something extra to the work," Herman said. "She is hard-working and has a great understanding of what she's doing. Plus, she has the skills to explain it others. That's a big plus."

Hixson-Bowles would like to have a career that incorporates her double major. She said she is interested in genetic research and bioethics and plans to get a doctorate in either field.

"I have the unique opportunity to work with a team of biologists with a variety of backgrounds in Dr. Herman's lab," she said. "There's a lot to learn from this group and I plan to take full advantage of my position."

At K-State, she has been a community assistant in the Strong Complex and will be a resident assistant in Moore Hall in the 2009-2010 school year. She also is a member of the International Buddies program and the Women in Engineering and Science Program. A 2008 graduate of Olathe North High School, she is the daughter of Jeff and Shelley Bowles.