Surviving the salt: Research selected for international conference

Brine flies might owe their survival in the salty waters of the Great Salt Lake to a bacteria Amanda Truong found living within their cells. Later this month, she’s going to tell an international audience about her findings at a prestigious  conference in Japan.

[Zach Williams, Weber State University Communications]
“We’re thinking these bacteria  have been inside the brine flies for hundreds of millions of years, and that’s why they’ve made their way into the cells,” Truong said. “This bacteria might have something to do with the fitness of the brine flies.”

The high concentration of salt in the lake makes the environment so extreme that the brine fly and brine shrimp are the only organisms that make the lake home.

“Most organisms, if you put them in those high-salt environments, they would not be able to survive,” said Jonathan Clark, Weber State University zoology professor. “But these flies, for some reason, are able to survive in this environment.”

After hundreds of hours in the lab and at the lake, Truong found a bacteria — Wolbachia — that could be key to the flies’ survival.

“When we found the Wolbachia in the brine flies, it was really exciting,” Truong said. “We all cheered.”

The bacteria is believed to skew the female-to-male reproductive ratio, giving deference to females, Clark said. More females means more reproduction, hence the thick clouds of buzzing flies along the shoreline of the lake.

The flies are essential to the lake’s ecosystem, removing organic compounds such as algae that would sap the lake of oxygen if left unchecked and providing food for migratory birds.

The hours Truong has poured into researching brine flies suits her ambition to become a research physician, a goal that will take four years of graduate school after Truong, a junior, graduates from WSU.

“I really enjoy doing the research,” Truong said. “It’s just really interesting, because I’m really interested in genetics. It’s been really beneficial to me in what I want to go into.”

Truong’s research has especially educated her on the lab techniques required for in-depth studies of endosymbiotic bacteria, or bacteria found within cells. It is believed that such bacteria contributes to the development of kidney stones, gall stones, elephantiasis and other medical conditions in humans, Truong said.

Truong was among 10 students selected to present her research at the annual meeting of Society of Molecular Biology and Evolution in Kyoto, Japan, July 26-30.

“I didn’t think I’d get it because there was a lot of people applying,” Truong said. “It was really exciting.”

Truong will continue to research the brine fly, and said she would like her findings to be published in a scientific journal. She said she believes her research will give her a competitive edge when she applies for graduate school.

“Doing research as an undergraduate is really, really important,” Truong said. “You learn a lot.”

Clark, Truong’s research mentor, agreed.

“If you want to go to graduate school, or if you want to go to medical school, then you have to have something on your application that’s going to distinguish you from the thousands of other students who want to go to graduate school or medical school, and these independent projects are one way of doing that,” Clark said.

The meeting of the Society of Molecular Biology and Evolution is the world’s leading conference on evolutionary biology, according to WSU Communications.

“It’s really important for students to know how to do research,” Clark said. “Students can do meaningful research at this university.”