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For Immediate Release: June 26, 2007
Contact: Gina Hebert, MBL, 508-289-7725; ghebert@mbl.edu


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MBL Assistant Scientist Seth Bordenstein.
Photo by Tom Kleindinst

Below: workshop participants

Discovering the Microbial World Within:
Howard Hughes Medical Institute Awards Grant to MBL Scientist Seth Bordenstein for Teacher Training Program

Funding will create inquiry-based, experiential curriculum for high school students nationwide

MBL, WOODS HOLE, MA—The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has awarded a $725,225 grant to MBL (Marine Biological Laboratory) Assistant Scientist Seth Bordenstein to support The Wolbachia Project: Discover the Microbes Within!, a hands-on, laboratory-based professional development program for teachers that will promote scientific discovery and biotechnology in the classroom and bring new life to high school science classes nationwide.

The grant is one of 31 awarded as part of HHMI’s Biomedical Research Institutions Initiative, a $22.5 million program that aims to close the gap between research institutions and their local communities by supporting educational programs intended to stimulate an interest in science, particularly among young students. HHMI's grants program is the largest privately funded education initiative of its kind in the United States and is enhancing science education for students at all levels, from the earliest grades through advanced training. Since 1988 HHMI has awarded approximately $1.5 billion in grants.

“These grants provide a unique opportunity for the biomedical research community to provide hands-on experiences and rich content to students and teachers, extending their impact to a broader range of the education continuum,” said Peter J. Bruns, HHMI's vice president for grants and special programs.

Initiated at the MBL by Bordenstein in 2005, the intensive, three-day teacher workshop Discover the Microbes Within! creates curricula for grade 9 to 12 students based on laboratory exercises using Wolbachia, a widespread bacteria that lives symbiotically in about 75 percent of the world’s insects. By examining the distribution of Wolbachia symbionts in local insect fauna, teachers are trained on ways they can bring biodiversity, molecular biology methods, bioinformatics, and molecular evolution concepts into their classrooms. The lab modules are designed to be either individually incorporated into daily lesson plans addressing National Science Education Standards or as a coherent unit progressively emphasizing the nature of long-term science throughout the school year.

Wolbachia is an excellent model system for science education because of its fascinating biology, abundance across the planet, and direct applicability to on-going real world science. Wolbachia is also highly relevant to human health organizations, as the bacteria infect the insect vectors of the world’s most devastating diseases including mosquitoes that transmit malaria.

With the HHMI funding, the MBL will expand this cutting-edge program to become a national training center for Discover the Microbes Within! workshops. In addition to hands-on training at the MBL, Bordenstein and his colleagues will assist teachers in using the curriculum in their classrooms by connecting them with scientists in the field and providing in-school visits. The program will also provide travel assistance for teacher meetings and offer internet forums with other teachers and students who previously implemented the study of Wolbachia.

The program will also create a six-week long summer research experience for selected students and teachers who experienced Discover the Microbes Within! in a Wolbachia research lab at the MBL or other academic institution. “By pairing up with scientists, participants will expand on their classroom science training by assisting new and ongoing research, cementing their practice of the scientific method, enhancing their content background, and spawning novel research ideas to bring back to the classroom in the ensuing academic year” says Bordenstein.

Over the past two years, the MBL has trained 48 teachers and impacted several hundred students through the Discover the Microbes Within! workshops. Coupled with teacher in-service training, the project is estimated to have impacted more than a thousand students in the 2007 academic year. Three school systems currently use the curriculum: Falmouth High School, on Cape Cod, MA, Fannie Lou Freedom High School in the Bronx, NY, a school that includes a minority student population, and Loudon Academy of Science in Loudon County, VA that spans an advanced science student population.

“The generous funding from HHMI will directly benefit the local community, the MBL, and high school science education around the nation,” says Bordenstein. “With this award, we will see the Wolbachia Project lab series go from a regional outreach effort to one that is nationwide over the next five years. With the help of HHMI, we are now poised to place the curriculum and MBL as a nationwide education resource for biotechnology, scientific inquiry, and symbiosis.”

“We are grateful to HHMI for their support of this important outreach effort,” added MBL Chief Academic and Scientific Officer William H. Beers. “The MBL offers some of the most unparalleled immersive science education experiences available anywhere and this funding will help to bring our teacher training efforts to a new level. We are looking forward to using our unique resources and strengths in biological research to bring the excitement of scientific discovery to the high school classroom."

Bordenstein is an assistant scientist in the MBL’s Josephine Bay Paul Center for Comparative Molecular Biology and Evolution. His research focuses on the mechanisms and relevance of bacterial endosymbiosis, or the interactions of bacteria living symbiotically inside the cells of other organisms. Without the establishment of such endosymbioses billions of years ago, life as we know it today would be unrecognizable. Using evolutionary, ecological, molecular, and genetic approaches, Bordenstein seeks to uncover a deeper understanding of the ways in which animals and microbes interact, the effects of symbiosis on bacterial genome evolution, and the applications of symbionts to human health. Much of his research and outreach focuses on the pre-eminent bacterial endosymbiont Wolbachia.

Bordenstein received a B.S. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, a M.S. in Biology, and a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Genetics from The University of Rochester. From 2002 to 2004 he was a National Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at the MBL in the laboratory of Jennifer Wernegreen. In 2005 Bordenstein was appointed to faculty in the MBL’s Josephine Bay Paul Center as an Assistant Scientist. He also currently holds a faculty appointment in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University and is a founding member of the Mobile Genetic Element Cluster at the MBL.


The MBL® is a leading international, independent, nonprofit institution dedicated to discovery and to improving the human condition through creative research and education in the biological, biomedical and environmental sciences. Founded in 1888 as the Marine Biological Laboratory, the MBL is the oldest private marine laboratory in the Western Hemisphere. For more information, visit www.MBL.edu