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Kansas State University student to research plants producing new antibiotics in Germany

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Gabrielle Phillips

Gabrielle Phillips, sophomore in mechanical engineering, will research antibiotic production this summer with the support of the German Academic Exchange Service, also known as DAAD, through its Research Internships in Science and Engineering, or RISE Germany. | Download this photo.


MANHATTAN — If new antibiotics could come from plants, they would be an addition to the world's arsenal of bacteria-fighting tools, according to Gabrielle Phillips, a Kansas State University sophomore in mechanical engineering, Andover.

"The more we can diversify antibiotics so bacterial strains don't become resistant to the same ones, the better off we will be," Phillips said. "We're using antibiotics heavily, which leads to resistance. If we look for them in new sources, the new antibiotics could have different mechanisms that bacteria aren't resistant to yet."

Phillips will seek to discover new antibiotics this summer with the support of the German Academic Exchange Service, also known as DAAD, through its Research Internships in Science and Engineering, or RISE Germany.

Through the program, Phillips will research how plant cultures could produce new antibiotics. Not many mechanical engineering students are spending their summers researching plants, but Phillips, a member of the university's Pre-Med Club, said the research opportunity aligns with her goals of becoming a medical doctor and biomedical engineering researcher.

"I look forward to seeing patients and working on tools to fix the problems I encounter, rather than just seeing patients and hoping other researchers give me better tools," Phillips said.

Her upcoming international research opportunity is part of a program that allows undergraduate students from North America and the United Kingdom to intern for three months in science-related positions. About 300 scholarships are awarded each year.

Interns receive a stipend to cover basic costs. Host universities and institutes match participants with doctoral students who mentor them. Phillips will assist Monika Golesne, a doctoral student at Technische Universität Kaiserslautern, with her research project on novel antibiotic production from plant cell cultures.

The antibiotics Phillips will study come from callus cells, which are like stem cells that plants generate where they are cut or damaged. At the lab in Germany, Phillips will examine callus cells under various conditions, isolate antibiotics from the cells and test them for effectiveness.

"It's rather time-intensive and painstaking to grow cell cultures while ensuring no bacteria or other contaminants are growing with them, but it's important work for finding new means to fight bacterial infections," Phillips said. "We will never find the silver bullet because bacteria keep mutating."

This project will help Phillips build on the research skills she has gained in the laboratory of Ruth Welti, university distinguished professor of biology and director of the Kansas Lipidomics Research Center in the Division of Biology. Under Welti, Phillips has been studying how a small flowering plant, Arabidopsis thaliana, processes lipids, which are organic compounds that are essential for cell growth in plants and animals. A. thaliana is considered a model for genomic study because of its small size, short life cycle and other characteristics.

"For bacteria, we study E. coli. For plants, you study Arabidopsis thaliana," Phillips said. "We're looking specifically at Arabidopsis because knowledge about this plant can be applied to other plant systems."

Phillips is working to identify the function of a lipid metabolism gene by comparing mutated A. thaliana plants with normal samples. She said it is important to study the plant's lipid processes because lipids are key for cellular signaling, membrane integrity and responses to various stresses such as droughts, freezes and insect pests.

"There's so much more to learn about lipids and their physiological role in plants," Phillips said. "If we could identify an enzyme that plays a role in lipid synthesis, that could help us better understand how plants do what they do."

Phillips is a member of Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society and the University Honors Program. She has received a Cancer Research Award from the Johnson Cancer Research Center. She is a Putnam scholar and a Campus scholar with Kansas IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, or K-INBRE. Additionally, she enjoys volunteering at Hope Ranch Therapeutic Riding Center in Riley County.

A graduate of Trinity Academy in Wichita, she is the daughter of Matt and Daphne Phillips, Andover.


Jim Hohenbary


RISE Germany

News tip


Written by

Tiffany Roney