Undergraduate research highlight: Veronica Sinotte

CATHERINE MURRAY
Science & Tech Correspondent

THE AQUINAS PHOTO / MARSHA FORSON VERONICA SINOTTE, working with a dissection microscope above, studies the neuroethology of ants.

THE AQUINAS PHOTO / MARSHA FORSON
VERONICA SINOTTE, working with a dissection microscope above, studies the neuroethology of ants.

Veronica Sinotte, a junior biology and philosophy double major, conducts research with Marc Seid, Ph.D., in neuroethology. She recently returned from a trip to Florida related to her research.

Getting involved with research can be as simple as having the right professor during a student’s first year at The University. Seid taught Sinotte for her general biology course during Sinotte’s first year, and she has been working with him in his research lab ever since.

During Sinotte’s first year, she joined Seid’s lab and started to learn the techniques necessary for research in myrmecology, the study of ants. Seid’s lab has a focus on neural biology and behavior. This neuroethology lab looks at how the biology of the brain relates to animal behavior, especially in ants. As Sinotte’s interest in research developed throughout her first year, she applied for summer internships to further foster her passion for research.

Sinotte obtained a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Internship in Panama during the summer of 2013. While in Panama, she spent time studying ant microbes. She looked at the diversity and quantity of microbes found in arboreal ants and terrestrial ants. In addition to looking at microbes, she looked at endophytic fungi, or fungi that live within certain species of plants. During this trip, Sinotte gathered data that allowed her to formulate questions that could be applied to her research back at The University.

Just a few weeks ago, Seid’s lab went to Florida to do some fieldwork and collect ants to be used in Scranton. Sinotte collected soil samples and ant colonies, namely from the species Camponotus floridanus. Previous research has shown that feeding ants antibiotics alters their development. For example, the cuticle, the outer layer of the ants, appears lighter. Sinotte plans to feed the ants antibiotics in order to examine their affect on the immune responses of the ants.

She wants to see how the antibiotics affect the ants’ capability to fight off disease. She will examine if the ants are able to fight off fungal infections when fed antibiotics. Microbes are thought to be important in the immune system of ants, so the results may show that internal microbes are the key to their functioning immune system.

The metaplural gland, a distinctive gland among species of ants, produces antibiotics that help the ant ward off infections. However, as the Camponotus floridanus embraced an arboreal habitat, this gland, through evolutionary history, became antiquated. However, as the ants now adopt a terrestrial habitat, they thrive and ward off microbes without a metaplural gland.

Sinotte hopes to learn how the ants have evolved structures and systems to defend against the possibly pathogenic microbes found in the soil in which they currently populate. She hopes to find a connection between the observable developmental changes and the resistance to pathogenic microbes.

For future research investigations, Sinotte hopes to look at how the ingestion of antibiotics affects ant brain development. She hopes to stain whole ant brains and look at levels of neurotransmitters and the development in different areas of the brain.

Sinotte has been accepted to perform evolutionary biology research at the California Academy of Science in San Francisco this summer. Sinotte came to The University thinking that she would attend medical school after graduation; however, after doing research for three years, she now plans to persue a career in research. Next year she plans to apply to graduate programs for ecology and microbiology.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *