The study of lichens and the natural compounds they produce may seem fairly obscure, but Dr. Michele Piercey-Normore says the link between pure science and applied science is an important one.
"You can't have just one or the other; you have to have both," said the lichenologist and dean of the School of Science and the Environment at Grenfell Campus. "The link may be distant but it's important for the public to see the application of pure science."
In the context of Dr. Piercey-Normore's research, that link could mean a very small organism making a really big difference. The natural products that lichens yield are the focus of her research, which she brought with her from the University of Manitoba when she took up the role of dean at Grenfell.
Lichens are part of the fungal kingdom.
"The fungi that form lichens are part of the same kingdom as other fungi," said Dr. Piercey-Normore, and they produce similar compounds pointing to better known fungal natural products such as penicillin and the fungus that causes athletes' foot.
The compounds that lichens produce have some very interesting potential for the lichen growing in its natural environment as well as for use in medicine or industry.
The slow growth of most lichens and their long exposure to the sun, bacteria and insects are part of the reason for the production of these compounds.
"Because they are so slow growing, they have to produce these natural products to defend themselves against excess sunlight, which has ultraviolet light that causes mutations in DNA," said Dr. Piercey-Normore. "We could potentially extract the sunscreen compound and use it as an ingredient of sunscreen for ourselves."
Other compounds keep out excess water – they might be used in paint production, to keep excess water out of paint, or other industrial applications. And still others form complexes with heavy metals in the rock to keep them from damaging the lichen; those might be useful in engineering or industrial applications that need removal or concentration of heavy metals, for instance.
"You can imagine if an organism is living hundreds or thousands of years attached to a rock on the Precambrian shield, it needs not only to be protected from the sunlight; but it also needs to be protected from fungi or bacteria that could invade the lichen and cause disease," she said. "Or an insect coming by feeding on the lichen could chew up 100 years growth within 10 minutes. There's a link between the natural products, what its function is in the organism that produces it, and how we would use it in industry. If it's preventing bacterial growth in the lichen, it may protect against bacterial growth for us."
These natural products are made inside the fungal cell. When they are fully formed, they are crystals that are deposited outside the cell on the fungal walls. Dr. Piercey-Normore and her students use a chemical such as acetone – the chemical in nail polish remover – to extract these compounds (one compound is known as usnic acid).
"If I want to test usnic acid on the growth of a bacterial culture, then I would add both usnic acid and bacteria to the same culture," she said, "then let the organism grow and if it grows around where you have the usnic acid, and not over it or through it, then you know usnic acid is preventing growth of the bacterium."
Dr. Piercey-Normore is one of very few lichenologists in North America, meaning that the students she employs to help her conduct her work get an experience that is rare to find.
"Part of the reason so few people work with lichens is because it's hard to get them in culture to begin with, and if you get them in culture they're so slow growing that you have to wait a long time to get the end results," she said, adding that another challenge to working with the natural products of lichens is the size of the genes that produce the natural products – they are so large they are hard to manipulate in the lab. If we could work with these genes in the lab, we could insert the gene into faster growing fungi, which would produce the natural product in greater quantities.
In the last granting season, Dr. Piercey-Normore received two grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). She also received a small start-up grant from Grenfell Campus to help her relocate her work from the University of Manitoba, from which she'd also received support during her time there.
She still collaborates with researchers at the University of Manitoba, and regularly employs undergraduate students to support her work including three recent undergraduates from Grenfell. These students spent the past winter learning about lichens and extracting the natural products from lichens through chromatography.
"What I'm really interested in is the ecology and genetics of the lichen with respect to natural products," she said. "But to be able to harvest natural products to do for us as they do for the lichen in nature, whether for industry or for skin protection, would be beneficial – that link between the pure and applied science is really important."
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the semester we will highlight some of the interesting research taking
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Article prepared by Pamela Gill
Photo caption: Brittany Ropson, who will graduate with an environmental science degree in 2018, spent the summer helping Dr. Piercey Normore in the lab, extracting these compounds from lichens this summer for further study.