Mar 10, 2022

A Peek into MoGen Undergraduate Research: Screening for Therapeutic Agents Against Parasitic Worms

Research Highlights

A Departmental undergrad from the Roy lab enrolled in a research course recently published as a first author

Undergrad student Savina Cammalleri
By Soha Usmani

The Department of Molecular Genetics (MoGen) provides an abundance of exciting opportunities for undergraduate students to conduct their research. One example of these fledging researchers is Savina Cammalleri, a third-year undergrad undertaking a MoGen double-major. This January, she published in the JoVE Journal characterizing a culturing protocol for nematode parasites as part of her work in Dr. Peter Roy’s laboratory. A video attached to the publication will demonstrate the protocol. 

Taking full advantage of office hours for the MGY200 course which Dr. Roy teaches, she obtained valuable advice and reinvigorated her interest in research opportunities in the Department during class. Due to this engagement, Savina acquired an undergraduate research opportunity (UROP) in the Roy lab. She is currently enrolled in ROP399 and plans to complete a thesis in the same lab by graduation. “Savina, together with her mentor and MoGen Ph.D. student Jessica Knox, has established the culture of bona fide nematode parasites in our lab and gives our work real-world relevance. I couldn’t be happier with their results.” stated Dr. Roy, “It’s so wonderful to have Savina as part of our group- she is clearly a very talented young scientist with a great future ahead of her.”  

In this paper, Cammalleri et al. (2022) outline a methodology for the culture of a plant-parasitic nematode (PPN) that infects plants called Ditylenchus dipsaci and screens for broad-acting small-molecule anti-nematode nematicide candidates. “Essentially, the paper looks at culturing the PPN D. dipsaci.” states Cammalleri, “What we do with the nematodes is small molecule screening to identify potential nematicides. Our culturing method can be applied to multiple compounds and parasites as well as non-parasitic nematodes.” This assay can also be used for testing drug resistance and other parasitic nematode species. 

Ditylenchus infects many important crops like onions and garlic but is just one genus of many that eradicate over 12% of global crops annually, costing losses roughly worth CAD 200 billion and has severe implications in the context of a ballooning human population and global hunger. Furthermore, this particular species has demonstrated resistance to current drugs. Dr. Roy states, "Many effective pesticides are justifiably being phased out because of safety and environmental issues, which is jeopardizing food security globally." Savina’s work is making an important contribution to the Roy Lab’s efforts to identify new and nematode-selective compounds that may lead to new treatments for nematode parasites of humans, livestock and crops.

What advice is there for prospective undergraduate researchers? “Being persistent works” emphasizes Savina, “Going to office hours is also instrumental, not just for research opportunities but also for general advice, references and gaining connections.” She also notes that students should not be afraid of rejection and take chances and be persistent, stressing that not being enrolled in the specialist program didn’t inherently limit her research options. It’s also critical that students be genuinely interested in the research aims of the lab they’re applying to increase chances of admission and be open-minded to new topics to specialize in. Savina initially was not aware of the problem of PPNs until after entering the Roy lab and being introduced to the project by Knox, demonstrating how students can broaden their horizons and interests by taking up research opportunities/interests. 

The Department offers numerous opportunities for undergrad students to simultaneously get research experience and course credit.

This includes but is not limited to the undergrad summer research program, MGY299Y, MGY480Y1, MGY481 and MGY482. Savina pointed out that engaging in research alters the way she approached her class content and scientific problems (rather than simply memorizing lecture content) and taking research courses benefits student development. Even in the face of COVID-19 restrictions and uncertainty, Savina still managed to obtain a rewarding research experience. Overall, this exemplifies the MoGen Department’s undergrad research opportunities, and the heights students can achieve. We congratulate Savina on her publication and wish her luck with her future thesis! 

*For more on undergrad research opportunities, please click here! 

A big thank you to Dr. Roy and Savina for their contributions!

*Read the article here: Cammalleri, S. R., Knox, J., Roy, P. J. Culturing and Screening the Plant Parasitic Nematode Ditylenchus dipsaci. J. Vis. Exp. (179), e63438, doi:10.3791/63438 (2022)