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Urchin Microbiomes and Self-Preservation


Aaron Beguelin ’18 analyzes sea urchin bacteria in a lab.
Aaron Beguelin ’18 analyzes sea urchin bacteria in a lab.

After coming to the sad realization that coral, which is on the brink of global extinction, would not be an especially prudent area of marine biology to specialize in, Aaron Beguelin ’18 turned his attention to sea urchins. Urchins, which feed on coral reefs and kelp, are primary consumers, similar to cows on land, and are highly important to the eco-system, playing a crucial role in algae growth.

This summer, Beguelin is studying two species of sea urchin that share a habitat around Fiji and the South Pacific and analyzing the operational taxonomic unit (the group of organisms being studied) of bacteria that exist within the guts of these urchins.  He has been working with Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology Simon Coppard, who collected the samples.

The human microbiome consists of the microbial community harbored by each person, composed primarily of bacteria in the gut. The microbiome, a term coined by Joshua Lederberg in 2001, has been at the center of projects launched worldwide in order to understand the important role these internal bacteria play in affecting health and well-being.

In order to harvest samples of urchin gut tissue, Beguelin used a DNA extraction kit, and then focused the portion of DNA on running gels. After sending the sample out for sequencing, he was able to determine to what genus of bacteria the segment belongs.                    

Aaron Beguelin ’18

Concentration: Biology

Hometown: Bethesda, Md.

High School: Landon School

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After comparing the respective microbiomes of the two species of urchin, Beguelin found significant differences between their bacterial compositions. “This was a surprising discrepancy, since these species share a habitat and have similar diets. This left us wondering how these two urchins which at first appear to be so alike could have such vastly different microbial communities inside of them,” he said.

 Now that the lab work is mostly done, Beguelin has entered the statistical analysis stage of his research, crunching data and beginning to further research background information on microbiomes. The work he has begun this summer will serve as the groundwork for his thesis, which he hopes to have outlined by the start of the fall semester. Currently, Beguelin is working on developing an official hypothesis for the project.

By observing, examining and analyzing patterns in the urchin microbial community, Beguelin hopes to break into the world of marine microbiology, a very unexplored field of science. “Medicine has never before used marine antibiotics, antibiotics which harmful land bacteria would be ill-prepared to combat. I believe we might find some interesting and useful microbial communities in the guts of fish,” he said.

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