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Our lives are frequently and significantly affected by food. Because we must eat to survive, many human cultures have developed with food at their very core. The goal of this podcast is to explore the complexity and nuance of the global food system, celebrate the progress we have made, and debate the best ways for humans to proceed forward into the future. 

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Dec 1, 2020

In this episode, we focus on a critical element of any research endeavor — having the correct tools to do the work. The interdisciplinary research of our guest, Dr. Ryan Hansen, assistant professor of chemical engineering at Kansas State University, focuses on food and health related studies. Dr. Hanson uses innovative approaches in microfabrication, polymer science and surface chemistry to design novel synthetic biological interfaces for characterizing microbial populations.


Advancements in Measuring Techniques: our ability to understand microorganism interaction with Dr. Ryan Hansen, assistant professor of chemical engineering


With the microbiome is that it really does require a range of skills. It's not just going to be one person that can do, you know, genetics or, you know, one person that makes these cool devices, right, or one person that specializes in bioinformatics. It's a combination of biologists, computer science, computer scientists, chemists, engineers, right. And so, so it really does require, you know, it takes a village, if you will, right, it's going to be a very big interdisciplinary effort.


Something to chew on is a podcast devoted to the exploration and discussion of Global Food Systems produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University. I'm Maureen Olewnik, coordinator of Global Food Systems.


And I'm Colene Lind, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Kansas State. I studied the public's role in science and environmental policy.


And I'm Jon Faubion. I'm a food scientist.


A critical element of any research endeavor is having the tools needed to do the work. Today's guest is Dr. Ryan Hansen, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering, and the Steve Hsu and Warren and Gisela Kennedy Keystone research scholar when it comes to micro organisms, and the interaction of microbes and complex systems, the tools being developed in Dr. Hanson's group may change or at least have direct impact on the ability, speed and accuracy of these studies. Ryan, welcome to the podcast. I would like to welcome you Ryan, Dr. Ryan Hanson to Something to Chew On. We're really looking forward to hearing a little bit more about your research activities. Before we move into that I would also like to welcome Dr. Colene Lind. Dr. Lind is an associate professor of Communication Studies at Kansas State and will be joining us from on occasion as a host. And so welcome, Colene. 


Thank you, Maureen. Great to be here. 


And with that, Ryan, could you start out by giving us a little background on who you are? And really what drew you into the area of study that you're into, and then maybe we'll take it from there?


Sure. So I am an Assistant Professor in Chemical Engineering at K State in the Tim Taylor, Department of Chemical Engineering. And I've been here for five years now I'm going this is my sixth year. I started in 2015. I came over from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and I had worked there a couple years. But my background is in chemical engineering. So I graduated with my PhD from the University of Colorado. And they're I studied chemical engineering and I looked at materials polymer science for biomedical applications. And then I hung around in Colorado, it's where I'm from, and I went to the Colorado School of Mines, which is also where I did my undergrad. And I kind of went more than the biomedical route for a while. And I developed blood diagnostics. So tests that could actually diagnose bleeding disorders. And so I did that for a few years. And then my career took a turn to the National Lab scene. As I said, I was at Oak Ridge National Lab before coming to K State and I was there for a little over a little over two years, two and a half years. And there I got to do a lot of things, but it actually got me into some environmental microbiology. And I was also able to use some of the skillset that I had developed in my previous research, which was focused on developing and designing devices for, for measuring and biological systems or characterizing biological systems. So I got to apply that at Oak Ridge and do a lot there. For those of you that don't know about a national laboratory, it's funded by the Department of Energy. I was able to pick up some aspects and microbiology some aspects of design devices, micro nanofabrication. So these are all I would say very different fields, but it was really unique because I got to combine them and really participate in a very new area of research and I really liked that. And while I was there at Oak Ridge I I decided that it was really fun to do my own research. And I really enjoy the the freedom of research that I was able to do at Oak Ridge. But that was certainly a temporary situation. So that got me thinking about faculty positions, and I had been out, I would say, Yo, boy, six, maybe more than six years, from my PhD to that point. So I've been out a long time. But I really thought at that point, boy, it would be fun to be a faculty member. And I, you know, I jumped around, I had quite a few experiences, but I saw K State, and was really interested in case state. And one of the big reasons was, because I could see myself fitting in with their emphasis on food, and their emphasis on biosecurity, and their emphasis on environmental research, as well. And you know, those are some of that was new to me. But I knew that being at Oak Ridge, where we were looking at some environmental microbiology, it would be somewhere where I could expand my research and grow. And so I really liked K State. For that reason, I really liked the Department of Chemical Engineering as well, it was a nice size, there wasn't it wasn't really big, there was enough faculty there that were all really, really good and very welcoming. And I realized that I would fit in just very well with the culture here. So I started in 2015, and have been here since. So that's a little bit about my career progression. 


What are your research areas? What are you hoping to end up with, and at the end of the day, all of those.


So my research is really at the intersection of microbiology, and material science. And so we look at interfaces and using interface using materials to characterize microbes to separate microbes. We study how microbes interact with their environment, how they interact with surfaces with membranes and with each other, basically. And what we do is we're developing devices, we're developing materials that really help aid the microbiologist and making new measurements and progressing their research. What I found, when I started was that the tools that the microbiologist actually has are, are fairly limited and have been around for decades. And microbiology is just this field of exploding knowledge. There's, there's all sorts of new organisms that are being discovered all the time. And there's so much more out there. And I saw that and I said, you know, it would be for someone to come and develop new tools that can help a microbiologist, do what they're doing and study these organisms at a higher, a higher level, learn more, that would be great. That would be a lot of opportunity there. And so that's what I've been doing. I've been basically developing new tools, new systems, new materials that are geared towards studying microbes, and how they interact in their environment.


 Interesting. So it's, it's not more it's not a quantification it's more of a characterization of behaviors?


Yeah, I mean, currently, you Yeah, well, there's there's quantitative aspects, for sure. And in my research, but it is, it's it's characterizing, characterizing how microbes interact, how they, how they work with each other to survive, how they inhibit each other. And I think we'll get into this, I think when we get into our, you know, some of the global food system work, but it's really trying to characterize, okay, how are these organisms interacting together and natural systems, bacteria, microbes, the, you know, they don't, they don't interact in a vacuum, right? They're there, they interact in these very complex environments. And it's because it's so complex, it's been very difficult for a microbiologist with the standard tools, they have to piece together these, these small pieces of information and get a bigger picture of what's going on. And that's, that's a broad statement. But you see that in any system, any kind of ecological system, whether it's soil or plant or in the ocean, simply there's a lot that's unknown, that needs to be discovered. So yeah, so that's, that's what we're doing. And you know, there's quantitative parts of our work, certainly with that, but yeah, a lot of a lot of instrument development and a lot of engineering actually.


So, I know when I first met you, when I first came on board at K State, what came to my mind my background, pretty heavily focused on the food safety area, and the first thing I thought of when I saw what you were working on is food safety, specifically, and the potential of some of these types of activities being carried out. You were talking about the complexity of microbiology and the systems that they are that they're growing in, and the ability to, to measure and test but food systems, food matrices are incredibly complex. And just thinking of the possibilities of what you're doing, and where that would fit into these complex systems was just, it certainly hit the mark with me. And I understand that, you're probably well, you can speak to this a little more I'm from, from my background, people are looking for something fast and cheap, something that they can take out onto a floor and work on and do the tests. And it's done. I know you're not there yet. But is that something that would be an ultimate focus? Or?


Yeah, so I certainly think that there are some ties in industry to what we have been doing and what we're going to continue to do. And we want rapid detection, for example, or rapid characterization of a sample to save time to save money to prevent, for example, contaminated food from being put into distribution. And these all require better techniques for detection, right, if we're going to go with foodborne pathogens, right? Being able to detect contamination without having to culture is a big deal. Right. And so, yeah, we're working on materials and interfaces that capture pathogens, foodborne pathogens, specifically, and isolate them from their environment so that they can be detected. You know, one, one important step that people often forget is there's a separation component here, where you have to separate out oftentimes a pathogen from everything else in this complex matrix. And to do that, you need materials. And that's actually where the chemical engineer comes, comes in. Because a lot of people are listening to this thinking, Okay, this is a lot of microbiology, but there's the separation aspect, where you're trying to pull out a certain organism, in this case, a pathogen, and you need that to detect it or to characterize it. And so that's really one thing we're doing. And one, one way we're using these materials and these interfaces is to, to pull out pathogens from a sample, it might be water, it might be food, and then characterize it. So yeah, and, you know, certainly I think, from the industry perspective, that's one area where we're, I think we have a lot of ties into what companies need. You know, the other thing that we're doing is also looking at this at a fundamental level. One project that we have starting up, this is an NSF project that I have, and it is focused on isolating foodborne pathogens that have what's called a viable but non culturable phenotype. Basically, these are pathogens that are a small, a small subset of an overall population, but they have a unique phenotype. And what they do is they actually can turn off their metabolism go into this dormant state where they can't be treated with antibiotics, for example, but what happens is that they can resuscitate over time and then come back. And so obviously, that causes a lot of problems. That causes a lot of problems in clinical settings that causes problems also, potentially with foodborne pathogens. And so we're interested in separating out those types of cells so that we can study their, their genetic makeup study their their RNA that they're being expressed, find biomarkers that will allow us to detect that that specific population of cells because right now, that's really hard to do, you're looking for, it's very hard to separate out these cells that are that look very similar, but are behaving differently. And so yeah, so that's one example where that would certainly improve food safety. And it also ties into clinical applications as well. 


So it appears, at least in thinking a bit and actually, I'll have to admit to coming from a biology background from a developmental biology background, are you are you focused in on dealing with the cell surface architecture or chemistry as a way to as a way to remove the selectively two from the rest of the from the rest of the matrix?


So in some applications, yes, some applications you can actually go back to this just idea of separating out a pathogen from let's say, a water matrix or a food matrix. There are antibodies that you can use to target individual pathogens. And so what we're doing is we're developing interfaces that allow us to orient those antibodies and not only combine the antibody, but we with a surface but also provide a structure on the surface that allows that cell to interact with the surface in a very high level. Contact lenses so that you actually can improve how efficiently you capture these organisms. Once you get efficient capture, that translates to sensitivity. And so that's, and that's key, because sensitivity is everything right? If it's there, right, and it's, we'll say one cell per milliliter, right? That's a really low concentration. But in some cases, that might be what you need. Well, if you need it, if you have an application like that, you really need an efficient separation process. So yeah, that's certainly one way of doing this is to look at the surface and target the cell surface and make an engineered surface so that that cell is going to stick on that surface. Once it comes in contact with it.


I was just looking at some of the information background on what you've been working on. And you may have just spoken to this, but there's a mention of a photo degradable hydrogel application that you're working on. Can you explain a little bit about what that is?

Yeah, I'm so excited about this. So this actually, the way that came about was actually interesting, because I work on photo degradable hydrogels, or they're more generally photo polymer. So these are polymers that are either formed by light or degraded by light. And that was my background. And I put that on the shelf for, you know, six or seven years. But then when I started working here, I realized that I could use a lot of those materials I worked with in grad school for some of these applications. And so what we have done is we've designed these polymers, we, and they're hydro gels. And so basically, hydro gels are these really water absorbent. polymers, they're these cross linked polymers that absorb water. So just, you know, just like material you would find in a diaper, right, that's super water absorbent. These materials do the same thing as far as being very compatible with an aqueous system. And we decided to try to actually capture cells into these hydro gels. And what that does is basically hold these cells in place, so that you can look at them and look at a lot of them at the same time. And then what we do is we take a pattern light source, and if we see a cell that we want, so let's say that we see a cell and it's behaving oddly, but let's say it has this, this culturable. But non-viable phenotype, right behavior. And when we if we see that, right, that might be a needle in a haystack, we want to get that out and separate it so we can study its genetics. And so what we're doing was we're designing these polymers so that we shine light right over that cell that's trapped in this hydrogel, and it pops out. And we were what we can now do is, we can now just take that out in a little droplet, and isolate it and then study its genetics, at least that's where we're going and what we're doing. So it's a separation technique again, and it's, you know, it's hopefully going to be a very, very practical type of technique that a lot of people can do. And so that's, that's the idea of the materials and the photo degradable hydrogels. You know, the other thing with that, and this gets more into the medical side of things is people are really interested in using bacteria as therapeutics. So there's this initiative from the NIH bugs is drugs, that's basically looking at using bacteria, oftentimes engineered bacteria to deliver therapeutic agents to a tumor site, or simply to colonize in a tumor site and kill that tumor. And so they're seeing that some types of bacteria can do that. Well, the challenge there is that you also have to deliver it into a tissue. And so just like they do this with drug delivery, what they do with drugs is they'll encapsulate them in a protective coating. And then they'll shine light on it, and it releases the drug in that specific site. What we saw that we said, well, we could probably do the same thing with bacteria, because people are really interested now and using bacteria to deliver a drug to a cancer site. So we also are kind of moving that direction where we're saying, Okay, let's, let's encapsulate these potentially therapeutic bacteria into these polymers that fall apart in life. And then if they can fall apart in near IR light, so this is really, really low energy light source, and it penetrates through tissue. So if you can do that, and if you could get the chemistry, right, you could actually have this on demand release of bacteria into a tumor site or into some type of disease site. So it's, again, it's this intersection of microbiology and material science towards a new direction now towards more of the clinical side of things. I know that gets off of the food application. It brings up kind of a new area we're going.


It's fascinating and actually, I may be stretching this just a bit but on the health side of things, I could see probably applications Then in meat animals or in, you know, in the veterinary side of things, so things come full circle, one point or another.


They do I found that to be true in my career as well, because I, I started out in environmental, doing environmental work in industry, and then I went to biomedical and then I circled all the way back around to the environmental side when I got K State. So yeah, things always come back around. It's interesting how that works.


Yeah, absolutely.


Is there an organism that you're using as I don't want to say a test but sort of a model.


Yeah, there's, there's a few organisms that we have experience with. I mean, the one that everybody uses is e coli. Because you can, you can manipulate that very easily on a genetic level. People can do all sorts of things with e coli. So when we're thinking about drug delivery, right, equalize the first thing that they think about. But you know, certainly. And of course, there's a strain of e coli. That's a foodborne pathogen. And so that's an organism that makes sense for not only me, but most people that are developing these materials to start with, standardized as an organism. In the past, I had a student who worked with Campylobacter Did you know, which is a common foodborne pathogen, and that is actually an organism that has this culturable, but non viable phenotype. And it causes problems and infection. And so we're looking at potentially working with that organism, and then certainly, you know, I will probably get into this, but I, you know, I'm not just looking there, I'm also really interested in what's going on underground in the soil. And so there, we're looking at classes of beneficial bacteria. So moving away from the pathogens and looking at beneficial organisms, we're working with axis beryllium, specifically axis beryllium bracante. So this is a bio fertilizer, it's a commercially available bio fertilizer that fixes nitrogen into plants. And so we're studying that organism a lot. And that kind of moves us underground and around the plant and gets us into bio fertilizer. So those are, those are a few organisms that we've recently been working with. And you know, but it's, we're always it's interesting, because, what we're doing when we go back to looking at these environmental systems is that we're uncovering new organisms nor characterizing new organisms. So we're always, you know, we're always out finding new organisms and pairs of organisms that interact in certain ways and that have new applications. Great. Yeah.


Ryan, I find it so interesting, you know, the first when you first started talking about your work, and you made it really clear for you to understand what the the need and the challenges for that you're trying to meet, the way that these microbes are so variable, the complex interactions that change the way that the fact that many of them have been discovered yet really, really fascinating. And now for the last few minutes, talking about how your work takes you to so many different kinds of little miniature ecologies, I realized, wow, you have to go from the soil to an animal gut to all kinds of different plants. I'm just thinking about this from a practical perspective. As you know, running your lab, how do you do that? How do you move from all of these different contexts, and yet be able to do work that is useful in all of these different ecologies? I mean, just does that make sense at all? It seems like it would be a real reality.


Yeah, so that's a good question. I so you know, it's the, the link for me is that all these areas, they really need, they have the same problems. There's so much that's unknown in any system, whether we're looking in the soil, or whether we're looking at plant roots, whether we're looking in our gut, there's many organisms that are unknown, and, and their function is unknown. So we're really developing these generalized tools that hopefully translate from one we call it a microbiome. So this is basically a community of organisms from one microbiome to the next to the next. And hopefully, they translate. So if we develop something that's useful in the soil, maybe that applies to the gut, and maybe, you know, we're looking at studying interactions between beneficial bacteria in the soil. Somebody that has a biomedical background and is into more medical microbiology can pick that up and apply it to the gut. Right. And so I think the uniting theme here is that there's similar needs in all these areas of microbiology, and there's Just so much that's unknown in each area. So let me put that into context. I looked up some numbers before we were talking. So I'll look at the soil. So the soil, if you take one gram of soil, you could ask, what are you going to find in that sample? Well, one gram of soil can harbor up to 10 billion organisms, 10 billion, so I didn't, I didn't misspeak there 10 billion. And with that, there's about 60, anywhere from 60 to 40,000, difference, different types of organisms with different species. So what I do when I present this type of work to my class is all simply way out. eight grams, 10 grams of bacteria. And I'll ask my students, how many organisms do you think are present here, then, and you think there's actually more organisms here than people on Earth? And of course, people don't think that. But in fact, there are, there's 10 billion organisms and about 10 grams of soil. And so I think it's really fascinating, just all the unknown information that's there. It's just very ripe for discovery. So, so anyways, I think, you know, the uniting theme there, though, is that people need new tools everywhere in microbiology. And so for me, that's great, because I can go a lot of different places, especially when I'm looking for funding. And I can say, Okay, this might tie to energy, this might tie to food, this might tie to health. But at the end of the day, microbes shapes so much of our life, energy, food health environment, that, you know, I think the possibilities are endless for, you know, what we what we can do, and and I think there's a need for the engineer in here, as well, it shouldn't just be isolated to the microbiologists.


I attempted to follow up on that idea that there's real value for you. Because you are interdisciplinary and have to be in the kind of work that you're doing. But speaking from my own perspective, I know that comes with its own challenges, too. But let me just go back to a minute for this idea that the 10 billion in one gram of oil, I mean, it reminds me, I have found really inspiring as I've listened to you talk to the last few minutes, I mean, just the idea of discovery of the unknown and pure discovery is just so comfortable in what you're talking about. And then the idea that there could be enough commonalities between these very, very different settings. It's also sort of it gets that it's kind of a really inspirational quality about science in general. I wonder, yeah. Because the work that you're dealing with is on such a tiny, tiny scale that, you know, some like me from outside the science has no idea how to envision it, that you're 1 billion in one gram. That's a great example. Do you have other examples of the ways that you try and help either your students or the general public understand and envision what's going on in this little tiny, tiny scale that you work with?


Yeah, that's a great question. I do. And I do it from a chemical engineering perspective, because those are my students. And so for example, we, in chemical engineering, we talk a lot about reactors and reactor design, right? And so you would look at that, and you'd say, okay, that has nothing to do with what I'm working on, right? Well, that's actually not true. So you think about a big reactor, right, and we design a reactor to, you know, operate at a temperature and pressure and volume to do a reaction? Well, our devices are really scaled down file reactors, what we do is we take we our devices take organisms, and we put them together in little, little reactors, not big ones. And when you do that, you can you can miniaturize the whole process and basically have 10,000 reactors and do that in a single test. And so I think, you know, I think for me, it's, it's, it's kind of finding the commonalities with my traditional discipline and what we're doing, because oftentimes, it can feel a little disconnected, but really the principles of what we teach you can find in the research we do, and so I think it's just especially for engaging undergrads saying, hey, you know, what you're learning. You know, this was done. Some of this was done decades ago, but we're still using these principles, and they translate what we're doing now. The course I teach is called transport phenomena. So it's, fluid mechanics and heat mass transfer, well, mass transfer, which is the study of diffusion of chemicals through time and space. That's how bacteria communicate with each other. They send the soluble chemical signals to one another, so you can apply a lot of what we learned to new systems. And so I think I think just making sure that you have that connection with students and you say, you know, you're learning stuff that we're actually applying, and we're making discovery with, and I've really engages students, students really want to, I think take ownership of material, they want to have an impact, they want to know what they're doing isn't just, you know, what was done in the 50s, or 60s or 70s, or whatever, right. It's having an impact now. So I think always connecting research for me, keeping research and teaching, integrated and, and not separating the two is really important for this type of engagement. And so I think that gets that what you were what you were saying, and so just some examples there 


It just seems that this is a sort of a type of science and discovery that it's almost a step change, it's the, it reminds me of the the initial development of radio immuno acids, where all of a sudden people had, you know, magnitudes, greater sensitivity and many magnitudes greater specificity. And after that, the work on that, once that work got out and into the general scientific public, where it ended up being applicable was incredible. In terms of GE, I never thought it, I never thought of using it for, you know, X, Y or Z. And do you think this technique, is that that powerful at this point? Or at least potentially? 


Yeah, I really do. I mean, I think that it made certainly, the tools and the methods were developing, they have their challenges, and they're not, we're not there yet. But we've seen some really promising results. I think there are some hurdles that are still there that we have to overcome. But if we can do that, and it's, you know, it's this field of kind of these, these engineers and microbiologist working together, you know, if we can do that, I think that this field is just going to continue to progress in a very rapid manner. So for example, one limitation that's very common is that most microbes in environmental systems don't grow. And so, you know, we talk about, okay, there's, there's 10 billion organisms in the soil. Well, the problem is 99.7% of those organisms don't grow, we're getting wood and to study then you have to grow them in microbiology. So we get that point. 3%. Right, that's a small fraction of what's actually there. And so the rest of it is dark matter. We don't know what it is. And, recently, they're great. 

I love that characterization. Dark matter? 


Yeah, yeah, that's what they call it, it's biological dark matter. And then recently, there's, there's a field, you know, in the past decade, I would say that's taken off, and it's called meta genomic. And so basically, meta genomic, you're actually able to get an idea of everything that is in a community of organisms without having to grow it. But, you know, from application side of things, you have to be able to grow an organism to use it, right? If I get one or two cells, and I'm, and they're producing an antibiotic, I can't, you know, I have to, I have to amplify that right, I have to grow that dramatically, to actually produce something. So the trick is figuring out how to culture these uncultured uncoachable. And I use that in quotations, uncoachable microbes, or bacteria, in this case, grow in a laboratory setting is a new challenge, right. And so, engineers and microbiologist are addressing this, how do we, what tricks can we do to recover new organisms? There's one group that actually, this is years ago now. But they were actually able to take a device and isolate individual organisms and then put it back in the soil where the soil contain all the metabolites that were needed, and start growing organisms that they could never grow before. And when they did, that, they were able to actually take new organisms that were producing new antibiotics, and isolate those. So that that gets at antibiotic discovery. And obviously, there's a need for new antibiotics. And so, you know, so that's a technical hurdle. But I think that's something that we're making progress on. And we continue to make progress on how do we recover organisms. And it's not just soil, you can look at any ecosystem, whether it's freshwater, you know, whether you're in the ocean, or in the soil, or any environment, most organisms you can't recover right now. So, but to me, that dark matter that's out there, it's just exciting, because, because I think that there's going to be more technological innovation that's going to get us there and get us to recover new organisms that do things that we've never thought of or that are producing new molecules that could be very, very useful. 


Sounds fascinating. Really. 


We'd have a really exciting pieces that we you had been involved in a, a workshop that we did earlier on on microbiome, and I appreciated the presentation that you did there. But it was it was one where we had speakers from a variety of different areas on campus that are doing research in the microbiome area. And I was, I was so excited to see there were a few people that presented there that I don't think knew what you were doing, understood the kind of work you were doing. And I'm hoping that that interface connected for you on campus, but it's, it just brings out the criticality, the importance of having this interdisciplinary understanding and work going on. You've, you've touched on so many different areas that just reach out into agriculture, that reach out into biology and reach out into so many areas of research on campus, and that that interaction is so critical.


It is it is, you know, and I think K State is a great place for that. I mean, we have an emphasis on food, but we have veterinary medicine, right. We have biosecurity applications all over. You know, and as we said, the microbiome, it touches all of these areas. And so, you know, I think that, you know, that was some of the motivation of having that microbiome research was to get people on the same page in the same venue, and really see how we can work together. You know, the other thing with the microbiome is that it's, it really does require great range of skills, it's not just going to be one person that can do, you know, genetics, or, you know, one person that makes these cool devices, right, or one person that specializes in bioinformatics, it's a combination of biologists, computer science, computer scientists, chemists, engineers, right. And so it really does require, you know, it takes a village, if you will, right, it's going to be a very big interdisciplinary effort. And so really getting, you know, we can do so much more, you know, this, the sun will be so much greater than, than the individual parts, if we can come together and tackle these big problems, because it's very complex. It really is. And I don't think there's one, you know, I've never met one single scientist that can do all of this. 


Well, it sounds like a great hunt really does that, that that would be the sort of thing that would get me up and back in the lab, I think, 


I do think it's really, we haven't talked too much about my global food project. But you know, there's similar things going on there, where it's understanding the interactions and plant roots. And using that to improve crop growth to improve drought, stress and crops. And that gets towards, you know, agriculture, obviously, and, and making plants resilient in the face of drought in the face of climate change. You know, relying less on chemical fertilizers, more and bio fertilizers. And so you know, there, there's another and I really think that's, you know, one of the, one of the big applications that I that we can do and do well here at K State with our emphasis on food. And so, yeah, I mean, I think I think for me, this is the fun part of research is that you, you don't always know where it's gonna go, but it can, it can, and you can end up in some really exciting and cool places. True.


Ryan, I would love to hear more about that particular work. I mean, when I when I read about the fact that you are interested in interactions and caring in the axis beryllium binome I thought, I wonder roots of what plants I wonder. So yeah, now, I love the idea that you might be able to promote plant growth without synthetic fertilizers. So please tell me more.


Yeah. So this is a global food systems project that kicked off last May. And we the goal of it is to understand important interactions between axis beryllium. And I mentioned that this is a well known bacteria, it's probably one of the most well known class plant growth promoting bacteria. What it does is it fixes nitrogen and provides ammonia to the plant for growth. So that's important, that's important specifically, while it's important for many crops, I'm focusing on corn and you know, corn is obviously a very valued commodity here. And so I think people some people use assel sprung alone for recording growth, but the problem is that these bio fertilizers really aren't very reliable. And and there's sort of this this issue of, well a plant growth promoting bacteria, will it be successful there? Or how reliable will it be when I implement it when I inoculate it into the soil or on a seedling and then there's a lot of risk associated with that from the producer standpoint. It when you know you have chemical for lasers that are going to give you a lot of bang for your buck initially, right? But, but long term are obviously very environmentally bad, you know, can degrade soil quality have a lot of environmental issues, there's really a need for transitioning to bio fertilizers. But there's a perception that bio fertilizers aren't very reliable. And so what we're trying to do is improve that and in the way we can improve that, I think is if you can understand the interactions that are going on between your beneficial bacteria. So in that case, that would be a axis beryllium on and the organisms that are already there, right, so the plant rises here. So this is the area just outside the root, where there's a very rich assortment of bacteria, and all sorts of microbes on that root surface. So that's where these cells interact. And for plant growth, promoting bacteria to interact with a plant, they have to establish themselves into these rhizosphere communities. Well, what interactions are important for that bacteria to survive in the root? We don't know, people don't know those questions. We're out to find those and to uncover important interactions. And if we can, and we've already actually done that, and have some really promising results. Just very recently, last few weeks on this, if we can understand those interactions, we can basically profile plants, we can look at the microbiome of the plant and say, okay, these organisms are present. And we know that this organism does well when those organisms are already there. And so that is kind of this site specific approach to bio fertilizer, where we already have some knowledge, we're not just blindly dumping in bacteria into the soil, we have some knowledge of what's already there. And we can match it to what we're putting in the soil. And that might improve the reliability, and hopefully, the perception of bio fertilizers. And so you know, we're very interested in that idea. We have a tool that we can use that can uncover these interactions very efficiently now. And so certainly, that's where we're going with that. And again, we're looking at corn and axis beryllium, because that's kind of a high impact application. I think. So but it wouldn't stop there. I think we could use it for all sorts of systems. And so that's where we're going on on that one. And then ultimately, what we want to do is if we find these sets of organisms that worked really well together, can we actually start putting these over a seedling and then showing that they're improving plant growth? Because what people are interested in, in this area is not just one organism, it's a consortia. They always say, microbial consortia. So is there a collection of organisms that can do the job better than just one in isolation? And most people will say yes, but we they don't know what that collection is. So we're looking for those networks, those interactions that can improve these bio fertilizers. And again, we think we have a tool that can do a good job at that.


So Ryan, the global food system, seed grant activity is based obviously, on the quality of the research that's put in and that type of thing. But we're also focusing heavily on interdisciplinary. So who are you working with on that particular project?


Yeah, so I have a strong collaboration with Assistant Professor in Department of Biology, I guess, which is Tom Platt, Dr. Tom Platt. So he actually is a microbial ecologist, and he knows a lot of the genetic side of things. And he works. He's traditionally worked with Agrobacterium tumor patients, which is a plant pathogen, but he gives us a skillset that we don't have as far as genetics and sequencing and understanding bacteria on a molecular level. And so you know, certainly for me, I'm an engineer, I'm doing devices, I making materials, I don't have that skill set. So that's one collaboration. And we've been actually working together for four years now. And so we have a, and we develop this device together. So we have that collaboration. And then also, I think important is industry and industry ties. And so we've engaged Bayer crop science. And so they've shown some interest in this work for developing bio fertilizers for improving drought stress in crops, and certainly are working on that in that engagement. And, you know, having them are more more or less an advisory role for us right now. But we hope that it leads to more and we hope that it leads to interest from Bayer. I mean, certainly they have a good relationship with Kstate. And you know, I think beyond that there's a lot of other companies that are smaller startup companies that are interested in that are developing these bio fertilizers, these these consortia of microorganisms that you can add to the soil or that you can amend the soil with So, you know, we're always out for collaboration we work with with KSURF, and they help us find some of these industry contacts. But I think certainly, keeping that strong tie is important. And I think industry sees a lot of potential here, because, you know, we talked about some of these devices, they can, they can screen, they can look at a lot of different interactions. At the same time I had mentioned, we can make 10 to the fifth small reactors on a single chip right on one test, from an industry perspective, you know, you're going to find that that combination rapidly and quickly and cheaply, the alternative to that is you're looking at how organisms interact by traditionally spotting them together, maybe looking at 10s of interactions at a time, whereas we're looking at 10,000 interactions at a time. And so just the time and the money that you can save from doing that rapidly from an industry perspective, I think is very valuable. And is you know, something that for a company that invests in this type of technology, which would really offer a lot 


Plus, and give you much more powerful data when you go to analyze. You can have 10 to the fifth on the thing. 


Yeah. So yeah, so we can look at that, you know, you're thinking about these different combinations of organisms trying to find the right combination, we can assemble 10, to about 10,000, I believe, right now, it's the number of 10,000 different different combinations of organisms and find that right combination, I say this, this shows the most promise, I almost, I almost liken it to an interview process. Let's say that you have, you know, you have 10,000 candidates, right, and you have to figure you got to get the candidate that fits in the most and does the job that best right? Well, I want to do that really rapidly, I don't want to go one by one, right and do that I want to do that at one at a one one shot, right. And so our devices designed to do that to where you can, you can consider 1000s of different organisms, you take the top one, and you are the top combination of organisms and you combine it with the bacteria that you already know, is beneficial. And you have your consortium, you have your mixture that you can then add to your crop. So that's the idea. Again, there's not many technologies out there that can do that. And that's certainly something we think we have we have an advantage with.


This is absolutely fascinating. 


I have many more questions, but we've got not long right. Yeah, maybe you can help me in a relatively short amount of time understand this. I think that you've gotten this last little bit, it's really helped me understand the sort of the leak that you're making with your tests of being able to take a number of. Is it something about the tests that you're doing themselves? Or there's something about the computing of the actual looking at all the different combinations? What allows you to make that jump, Ryan?


That's a great question. So what allows us to make that jump is basically miniaturizing everything. So what we do is, if we, you know, cells are about one micron, so your hair is about 10 microns, 100 microns in diameter cells, one might affect common bacteria. So this variation here, we'll just say it's one micron in length, well, that basically means we can scale down all these reactors into these little small reactors, and put 10,000 on a ship that's, that I can hold in my hand. And when I do that, I can look it with a microscope, we have a force of microscope, and I can look at everything at the same time. So this is called high throughput, high throughput study. So we can basically, when you miniaturize everything into these small devices, observation of all these different reactions, if you will, again, going to chemical engineering language here, all these different reactions are reactors going on at the same time. So it's making things small. And when you make things small, you increase the throughput. So that's, that's probably the answer, I would say to your question.


Thanks. That really helps me pull it back to you know, the nanotechnology.


Yeah, that's the connection.


It might feel testing messages is so much easier because of computing power. But there's also a little bit of analogy here. And that when you've got little tiny political messages on Facebook, for example, as opposed to a 30 second commercial, there are much greater combinations to be tested at once out there. So it's not exactly the same, but I get it.


Yeah, right. These ideas, you know, they can translate to different different fields. I will just say it's, it's been, it's really defining, you know, for professors to talk about their research. It's, I'm sure you, you get this with everybody. It's always really fun. And you can go on a long time, but I do want to thank you guys for the opportunity. I think that's, it's great to get the word out there as far as what we're doing, not only in my lab, but in K state as a whole. I think we're just, we're doing a lot of great things here. And so You know, thanks to the Global Food Systems for, you know, not only the opportunity that you guys give us, but also the messaging and the communication that we can do through that program. So, thank you guys very much.


I will continue to follow you Ryan. I just I'm your work just fascinates me to know and so great. Great, so exciting. I really appreciate the time from all of you. And again, welcome Colene. This was a lot of fun. Thanks a lot.


All right. Thank you, everybody. Thanks, everybody.


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Our music was adapted from Dr. Wayne Goins’s album Chronicles of Carmela. Special thanks to him for providing that to us. Something to Chew On is produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University.