When the blanket of snow recedes from southern Alberta and the first of the region’s hardy prairie plants begin to dot the naturescape, Lethbridge College microbiology senior research scientist Dr. Sophie Kernéis and lab technician Leanne DuMontier will be ready to work with some macroscopic views.
The sweeping springtime vista of the prairie is quite a different sight than they’re accustomed to from their regular work space – a fourth floor research lab in the Cousins Building where, for much of the year, they are focused on the micro level – studying organisms so small they fit in a petri dish or in the even tinier wells of a microplate.
But that focus on the molecular level has its roots, literally and figuratively, in the panorama of Alberta’s uniquely diverse environment. These mountains, river valleys and plains produce a diversity of plant life Kernéis and DuMontier have been studying since 2016, one plant at a time, in hopes of identifying sources for new antibiotics.
With the support of about $56,000 in grants from Lethbridge College’s Centre for Applied Research and Innovation Fund, their Alberta Antibiotic Plant Project has been testing flora for antimicrobial properties. Their research could have wide-ranging application – from providing a potential cure to antibiotic-resistant infections to finding new ways to treat textiles to reduce body odour. The possibilities are as limitless as the seemingly endless supply of plants in Alberta that are still to be collected and tested, waiting in the gently rolling coulees in the college’s backyard.
When Kernéis starts talking about the project, she says we can learn much from Sir Alexander Fleming – and not just about penicillin. “He was not terribly organized, which sometimes is good,” says Kernéis, breaking into a smile. “Holidays are good as well.”
Fleming returned from a holiday in September 1928, and he began sorting through a mess of petri dishes containing Staphylococcus bacteria. He found one that was contaminated with a fungus. The resulting mould had killed the Staph bacteria around it, leaving a clear patch in the dish. That mould, in essence, acted as an antibiotic, and this discovery would earn Fleming a share of the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine 20 years later.
At the time of his discovery, the world’s leading causes of death were pneumonia, tuberculosis and intestinal infections. Antibiotics quickly became effective treatment against these diseases and infections for many people, but even then, Fleming knew penicillin was not a magic bullet. Others took longer to come to that realization. “People thought infectious diseases were no longer a potentially deadly issue,” Kernéis says. “That was faulty thinking. Bacteria are quite smart.”
Today the World Health Organization describes antibiotic resistance as “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development.” The rise of resistant bacteria is a demonstration of the biological principle of selective advantage, explains DuMontier. Some organisms survive and thrive better than other organisms in the given environment.
They’re called ESKAPE pathogens – Enterococcus faecium, Staphylococcus aureus, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Acinetobacter baumannii, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Enterobacter species – the six bacteria that are the leading causes of nosocomial infections acquired by patients while in hospital. “Those are the ones you hear about when things go wrong at the hospital,” DuMontier says.
Kernéis and DuMontier are testing local plant extracts on bacteria, with an eye to one day testing them on antibiotic-resistant strains. “The goal of the project is basically taking the plant to try to look for antibacterial molecules in these plants,” Kernéis says. It’s fundamentally the same work as Fleming did nearly a century ago – he used fungi; college researchers use plants.
Inspiration isn’t just found in historic discoveries like Fleming’s. In 2015, the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine went to Youyou Tu, who researched a traditional herbal medicine to treat malaria. She extracted the active component from the plant Artemisia annua. The result was artemisinin, a new class of antimalarial agent, credited for saving millions of lives.
“These plants have adapted and survived this long number of years. They have developed their own tactics and techniques for dealing with soil's natural contaminants, insects, animals and many other factors that affect their growth.”
- Leanne DuMontier
The Antibiotic Alberta Plant Project was inspired in part on a family outing to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located about 72 kilometres west of Lethbridge. Kernéis’ daughter engaged in conversation with a First Nations elder at the interpretive centre. He spoke about the prairie plants Indigenous people had traditionally used to treat wounds, stomach upset or fever.
Kernéis’ husband, Dr. Roy Golsteyn, is also a scientist with years of research experience in cancer cell biology. With Golsteyn’s interest in cancer treatment and Kernéis’ expertise in microbes, it’s easy to imagine the conversation that happened in the car ride home. Scientists are inspired to ask why. Why did certain plants work as traditional treatments?
“Nature is the best engineer,” she says.
A review of existing research into antimicrobial plants found volumes of research into flora native to India, Asia and Australia. However, there was little information about plants native or introduced to Alberta. “If we can focus on the plants that are specific to here,” she says, “then maybe we have more chance to find unique molecules.”
But where to begin? They first started in the coulees and have expanded to other ecological zones. Some plants in the collection come from the Crowsnest Pass, where the scientists have permits for collection. They also welcome invitations from landowners to collect plants from unfarmed land in a relatively natural state.
Waterton Lakes National Park, a gem of an ecological area, is off limits for plant collection, but there's no shortage of sources or locations. The shortage they face is of time. The season for collection of plants is short. So far, they've collected samples from about 30 different plants.
"These plants have adapted and survived this long number of years," DuMontier says. "They have developed their own tactics and techniques for dealing with soil's natural contaminants, insects, animals and many other factors that affect their growth.”
So far, the collection includes a variety of plants that southern Albertans would recognize from a stroll through the coulee, but few people would appreciate the potent secret these plants might hold. "Every plant has potential," Kernéis says.
“Research is at the frontier with art. Making discoveries, even small ones, are always very exciting.”
- Dr. Sophie Kernéis
Kernéis’ interest in biology took flight in childhood. She was eight years old when her older sister got a microscope as a gift. A year later, the older sibling received a chemistry set. "I was a bit jealous as I was dreaming about them, but at the end, I was the one using them," she says. "At this time, we were living in the south of France. I remember going outside and looking at everything – insects, plants, dirt – and being so amazed by the beauty of life."
DuMontier's fascination with microbiology took hold in less idyllic conditions. "As an undergrad student at the University of Lethbridge, I accepted a summer student position at the Lethbridge Research Centre working with ruminant nutritionists on cattle and sheep digestibility trials," she says. "Very soon I found myself arm-length deep, sampling the inside of a cow's stomach. . . This work inspired my love of gut microbes."
Kernéis and DuMontier's partnership on the Alberta Antibiotic Plant Project is just one collaboration that makes the research possible.
After earning her doctorate in microbiology in Paris, Kernéis headed to Switzerland for postdoctoral studies. There she met her husband Golsteyn, a fellow scientist born in Lethbridge. He now serves as the director of the Natural Product and Cancer Cell Laboratories at the University of Lethbridge, where his research seeks out plants that could prove toxic to cancer cells. They often exchange plant samples.
Collaboration is key to this project. Internally, Kernéis and DuMontier work with college and university students as well as with botanist Steve MacRae, an instructor in Lethbridge College’s Environmental Sciences program who has a high expertise of identifying native plants and completes the critical task of identifying the collected plants. Externally, Dr. Raymond Andersen, a chemistry professor at the University of British Columbia and one of Canada’s leading natural product chemists, is bringing his expertise to the identification of antibiotic molecules from the plant extracts. Finding antibiotic molecules is the goal of the Antibiotic Alberta Plant Project.
Once the protocol for their research was established, Kernéis taught students the process for creating extracts from the plants, plating the samples and analyzing results for antibiotic activity. Kernéis says nine students have been involved over time, from Lethbridge College, University of Lethbridge and one from the University of Alberta. "Students love this work and we love them for it," DuMontier says.
Megan Puchbauer, one of the student research assistants and a student in Kernéis’ Biology class, came to Lethbridge College’s nursing program from Airdrie, attracted in part by the program’s emphasis on hands-on practical work in health facilities, starting in the first year. Once here, she discovered opportunities for research work. Puchbauer joined the microbial research group in October 2017. Now In her third year of her nursing degree, she was invited to present her research findings at a Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICAN) Symposium in Ottawa Nov. 5 and 6.
“I like to see how it works, what works and what doesn’t,” she says. Puchbauer hopes the plant project continues and that one day she’ll read about a breakthrough antibiotic. “I’ll be like, ‘Oh my gosh. I did part of that. I know those people!’ That’d be cool.”
The college’s applied research opportunities help students put theory into practice, deepening their understanding. "And it looks very good on a resume," DuMontier says. The excitement isn’t just the results, she says. It’s the process.
For Kernéis the process is now in place to discover the antibiotics of tomorrow. It’s just a question of funding and time.
Their passion for their work is, pardon the pun, infectious. “Research is at the frontier with art,” says Kernéis. “Making discoveries, even small ones, are always very exciting. You never know at the beginning of the day what you will discover.”
Landowners who are interested in inviting Kernéis to collect plant samples can contact her at 403-320-3202 ext. 5655.