Carnegie DEI grant enables intern to test algal resilience to climate change

Intern Hannah Menghis with Adrien Burlacot

As part of an effort to build bridges between Carnegie’s outreach initiatives, an intern from the D.C.-based Carnegie Academy for Science Education, Hannah Menghis, spent two months working on the Stanford University campus with Carnegie Staff Associate Adrien Burlacot on algal resistance to climate change. 

A senior at BASIS DC, a public charter high school that lets students undertake senior projects during their final trimester, Menghis worked with Burlacot’s lab to induce mutations in the photosynthetic algae Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, probing its ability to protect important cellular processes from environmental changes.

Carnegie’s departments of Plant Biology and Global Ecology supported Menghis’s internship with an internal grant designed to advance the institution’s ongoing commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Beginning in the fall of 2019, Menghis interned with CASE in Washington, D.C. While there, she learned basic biotechnology techniques and lab safety, and honed her critical thinking skills. Last fall, Menghis inquired about senior project opportunities at Carnegie’s Stanford campus.

For more than 30 years, CASE has demonstrated dedication to science and STEM experiences for students and teachers in the nation’s capital. The academy’s students develop skills in science, technology, engineering, and math—STEM subjects, explore careers, and prepare for college and the workplace. Marlena Jones, Acting Director of CASE, introduced Menghis to scientists in Plant Biology and Global Ecology, and helped the two departments shape DEI grant proposals to fit Menghis’s senior project requirements.

“What really drew me here,” said Menghis, “was the relevance of the research that they're doing: climate change. That’s the single biggest problem facing my generation.” Carnegie scientists tie plant biology to climate change solutions by studying a single-celled green alga, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. During photosynthesis, a protein in this alga seems to protect the photosynthetic electron transport chain from environmental changes. “Mutating that protein can help us understand how to make it more efficient and more resilient to different environmental fluctuations brought on by climate change,” said Menghis.

Plant Biology Staff Associate and principal investigator Adrien Burlacot managed Menghis’s work and grant. “She’s now able to do a lot of technical things that even undergrads would have problems doing,” he said. She learned to amplify tiny DNA segments through polymerase chain reactions (PCR), the familiar-sounding technique also used to test for COVID-19. She generated dozens of mutants that are completely new in the scientific community. In the next couple of years, the Burlacot lab will work with these mutants to analyze their response to environmental changes.

To mutate proteins, Menghis learned to edit gene sequences by using CRISPR-Cas9 targeted mutagenesis. This means a guide RNA molecule was bound to the Cas9 protein, to specifically target a DNA sequence found in the alga. Doing so introduced a cut site where an antibiotic resistance gene would be inserted. Sai Kiran Madireddi, a postdoctoral fellow, gave Menghis a solid foundation in understanding light-dependent reactions of photosynthesis, and introduced her to measurements that would determine the efficiency of the photosynthetic apparatus of the alga.

Menghis worked with lab technician Jacob Irby to generate three main mutants. During her second week of internship, she was shown the steps to perform electroporation of the algae. Two days later, she performed everything herself. “I felt like a soccer coach on the sidelines, providing friendly reminders as she progressed through each step,” said Irby. Afterward, she performed about 1,000 PCR reactions and confirmed the presence, or at least part, of an antibiotic resistance gene in many newly generated strains. “She is a gifted student,” said Irby, “I cannot wait to see what the future holds for her.”

Menghis will polish science communication skills when she shares her internship experience with her school through a poster and a talk. This fall she will attend Brown University and aim to major in biology.