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Animal and Food Science Building at Oklahoma State University
Several Animal and Food Science undergraduate students are helping to solve food security and animal health issues through their research.

Animal and food sciences undergraduates support the land-grant mission through research

Monday, June 26, 2023

Media Contact: Alisa Boswell-Gore | Agricultural Communications Services | 405-744-7115 | alisa.gore@okstate.edu

The beauty of science lies in its ability to reveal the hidden complexities of the natural world, according to Oklahoma State University food science major Jade Wilkinson.

“While it can be disheartening when experiments don't yield the expected results, it is precisely these moments that pushed me to question, investigate and innovate,” Wilkinson said. “It is a dynamic and ever-evolving process of discovery, driven by curiosity, perseverance and the willingness to embrace the unexpected.”

Wilkinson is one of more than 20 students conducting undergraduate research in the OSU Department of Animal and Food Sciences. The following project descriptions highlight their work.

Jade Wilkinson, Wentz Research Scholar

Wilkinson’s research studies biltong, a South African air-dried beef product that has grown in popularity in U.S. markets over the last five years. Unlike traditional American beef jerky, biltong is dried at room temperature after marination.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service requires the use of high heat and 90% humidity in a sealed oven to reduce pathogens on dried beef products so they can be consumed. Biltong jerky does not meet this requirement. A microbial validation study is required to demonstrate sufficient removal of bacteria if the requirements are not met. 

Wilkinson and her faculty mentor, Peter Muriana, professor and Extension specialist for food microbiology, performed biltong validation studies using the pathogens salmonella (acid-adapted) and listeriosis (non-acid-adapted) for processing to determine whether acid-adaptation is a necessary treatment prior to microbial validation studies. Acid-adaptation refers to growing a pathogen in glucose to produce acid, adapting it to low pH, so that it is more resilient to acid stresses that occur during the processing of meat.

Since some biltong processors will pretreat beef with approved acidic solutions and/or vinegar in the marinade, USDA-FSIS requested that OSU researchers use acid-adapted cultures in their biltong studies.

Data from the validation studies showed that the salmonella bacteria’s non-acid-adapted cells are not more sensitive during an acid process treatment than acid-adapted cells. This relationship was not clear when using listeriosis bacteria, so more validation studies are needed.

The research has the potential to change USDA-FSIS guidelines regarding the use of acid-adapted cultures for industry processing. Since biltong processing involves a drying period of six to 10 days, Muriana suggests the drying process may not affect acid-adapted cultures in the way scientists previously thought.

“This project taught me that science is not about always being right or having all the answers,” Wilkinson said. “It is through these challenges and surprises that students like me can make significant advancements in our understanding of the world and pave the way for future scientific breakthroughs.”

Muriana said Wilkinson is a gifted researcher with skills well beyond her years of experience.

“I recognized her abilities early on and offered her a graduate assistantship, but she had her heart set on going to veterinary school,” Muriana said. “I have no doubt she will become an excellent veterinary surgeon.”

Morgan Patterson, AFS Undergraduate Research Scholar

Patterson’s research uses holistic animal body models to study the immune system’s response to stress in livestock, specifically piglets. 

She is studying the third generation of pigs born to females that experienced stress during pregnancy. The goal of her study is to determine how the timing of chronic stress during pregnancy can impact the immune stress response of the pig’s offspring later in life. Treatment groups consisted of pigs that received a placebo and pigs that received cortisol supplements early, middle or late in their pregnancies. Once the piglets were born, Patterson and her colleagues studied their behavior for any signs of stress or discomfort. They also used blood, saliva and hair samples to better understand how the newborns’ immune systems were impacted by the various stresses their mothers experienced. 

“Receiving a research scholarship altered my entire college experience in a way I couldn’t have imagined,” Patterson said. “I have learned how to be an effective communicator, and I have gained critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Every lesson I’ve learned along the way has improved my education and inspired me to take on challenges every chance I get.”

Janeen Salak-Johnson, associate professor of animal and food sciences and Patterson’s faculty supervisor, said Patterson is an example of an undergraduate research scholar who is dedicated and will go the extra mile to get more out of the program. 

“Morgan has grown exponentially since her first few weeks in my laboratory,” Salak-Johnson said. “Having a student for four years is an amazing experience. She has set a new standard for future undergraduates in my research laboratory.”

Faith Howe, Wentz Research Scholar

Howe’s project focuses on two long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs): AL353138 and LINC01670. Her goal is to identify the impact these two RNAs have on the cell cycle.

Coding RNAs, which code for proteins, are a small percentage of the genome. A genome is the complete set of genes or genetic material present in a cell or organism. Most RNAs are non-coding. The term “long” in long non-coding refers to the length of the strand of RNA. These two long non-coding RNAs are associated with cellular senescence, which is a pause in the cell cycle. If cells are paused for an extended period or multiple cells are paused at once, the cells can potentially become cancerous.

Howe and her graduate student mentors, Ping Xiao and Anna Goldkamp, are working to find out if these two long non-coding RNAs play a role in the regulation of the cell cycle.

“We don’t know what most non-coding RNAs do, so we are trying to determine the function of specific non-coding RNAs,” Howe said. “For a while, it was believed that non-coding RNAs had no purpose, but recent research is finding that some of them have regulatory function. Right now, this is foundational work because we don’t know what most of them do or what their purpose is.”

Howe has been studying the expression levels of other genes when these two lncRNAs are knocked down. Gene knockdown methods refer to scientific processes that temporarily stop or decrease the expression of one or more targeted genes by adding or removing strands from them. By changing its expression, scientists change a gene’s ability to function. If the genes are knocked down, and they start dividing and don’t stop, this implies that the two genes play a role in the cellular senescence process.

Eventually, if Howe and her mentors can determine the functions of gene expression, these lncRNAs could be used as biomarkers for the diagnosis of cancer and may serve as a possible target for new therapies. She hopes to identify which gene pathways are affected when the lncRNAs are knocked down. This could provide a better understanding of the role lncRNAs play in the cell cycle.

“The most valuable lesson I have learned is the more you know, the more there is to learn,” Howe said. “Research is constantly changing and progressing, and regardless of whether you are a clueless freshman or an expert in the field, there is always something to learn.”

Paige Anderson, Wentz Research Scholar

Anderson’s research looks at lncRNAs that researchers believe could be small proteins. She and her graduate mentor, Anna Goldkamp, compiled a list of lncRNAs found in various bovine tissue samples and cells that might produce proteins. They then selected lncRNAs based on their expression. In her research, Anderson decreased the expression of these lncRNA genes.

“What Paige is doing is getting that first step — if we have these cells and we mess up this non-coding gene, what happens to everything else? If things go out of whack, then we can conclude that that gene has something to do with whatever went out of whack,” said Anderson’s faculty supervisor, Darren Hagen, assistant professor of animal and food sciences.

Anderson said if the lncRNAs did nothing, there should be no change in the expression of other genes after the lncRNAs are knocked down. If a gene’s expression does change after knockdown, it suggests that the lncRNAs may have a function.

“If we were able to change expression by knocking down these lncRNAs, then we would know that was a functional lncRNA. We have had quite a few successful knockdowns so far, and the next step is using RNA sequencing to identify if their altered expression results in a phenotype, which is a visible genetic trait,” Anderson said.

When scientists sequence something, they cut it up into millions of pieces, which they study to find the genetic differences between them.

“My involvement with the undergraduate research program has been incredible,” Anderson said. “I have learned so much about genetics and the scientific process. The research we are doing is groundbreaking, and being involved and trusted with this process has been such an honor.”

Natalee Richardson, Niblack Research Scholar

Richardson built a plasmid from two already existing plasmids, the pHd-DsRed and the ACT5C. A plasmid is a genetic structure in a cell that can replicate independently of the chromosomes.

The two existing plasmids contained genetic pieces she needed to insert a new DNA element into fruit fly cells. One plasmid contained a fluorescent quality that activates when host genes are expressed, while the other contained a promoter, a genetic trait that acts as an on-and-off switch for the fluorescent trait. The same genes might be expressed in muscle cells but not expressed in liver cells.

The goal of Richardson’s research was to prove that bacterial small non-coding RNAs impact the way host genes are expressed. To date, this has never been proven.

“We know that micro RNAs, which are small, non-coding RNAs that exist in non-bacterial organisms, impact the way that genes are expressed,” Richardson said. “But no one has been able to prove whether bacterial, small, non-coding RNAs affect host gene expression.”

If Richardson can prove this, it could open possibilities for new forms of antibiotics.

“If this is true, we need to reconsider the way antibiotics are being used and designed, because if bacteria are affecting the way genes are expressed and you have bacteria in your body already, then you don’t want to be killing off bacteria that are doing a certain job for you,” she said.

Richardson gained a new perspective while conducting undergraduate research.

“I learned that most of the time, a failure isn’t a failure. It’s a step forward,” she said. “I learned a lot about myself through this project. I got to follow my passions through difficulties, and I now know that research is what I want to spend the rest of my life pursuing.”

Hagen, who supervises Richardson, Howe, Anderson and their graduate mentors, said one of the biggest assets of the undergraduate research program is the experience it provides to graduate students.

“Having productive undergraduate students has benefitted those graduate students because they have had hands-on experience in training students, and that will set them apart from others in their future,” he said. 

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