Bacterial pigments as an untapped resource in the classroom and beyond

PLoS Biology Educators, like researchers, face enormous pressure to keep up with the rapid pace of scientific discovery. But educators must also find compelling ways to communicate the latest scientific findings to their students. PLoS Biology recently launched a new education series. The Education Series combines open education – which freely shares teaching methods, initiatives, and materials – with open access publishing to present innovative approaches to teaching critical concepts, developments, and methods in biology. It will cover fundamental areas of biology, from evolution and ecology to cell biology and biochemistry, and take full advantage of Web-based open-access research and multimedia tools to create an interactive, dynamic resource to further understanding of fundamental questions in biology and of current methods to investigate them.

Articles will feature initiatives that incorporate current life sciences research and allow students to use authentic research tools to investigate real-world problems and generate solid data – crucial elements for nurturing students’ interest in science. Toward this end, approaches that use genomics databases and bioinformatics tools, with their easy online access and mathematical expression of biological concepts, are particularly effective in the classroom. Alternately, taking students out in the field to test questions about relationships between species abundance and the presence of contaminants can provide a memorable lesson in environmental science. By mining the promise of open education and harnessing the collective imagination and talent of PLoS Biology readers and contributors, the Education Series will create a virtual biology education library that will be available through PLoS Biology Collections.

In the first article, Louise Charkoudian, Jay Fitzgerald, Andrea Champlin and Chaitan Khosla show that Streptomyces-derived natural products provide an untapped source of pigments, showing others how to explore the potential of biopigments in the classroom as well as in art and industry. The authors share their experiences in harnessing these biopigments to create paint and paintings and provide educators with the tools to replicate their experiments in the classroom.

In Living Color: Bacterial Pigments as an Untapped Resource in the Classroom and Beyond. PLoS Biol 8(10): e1000510. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000510
Recent advances in the study of natural products made by bacteria have laid the foundation for engineering these molecules and for developing cost-effective ways to manufacture them. In our lab, we study a number of natural products that are synthesized by harmless soil bacteria of the Streptomyces genus. Whereas our primary interest in these molecules is due to their antibiotic properties, many of these natural products have distinct colors. (The reasons for why Streptomyces make antibiotics or pigments remain mysterious.) This article is intended to make the case to the scientific and educational communities that Streptomyces-derived natural products are an untapped source of useful biopigments. By sharing some of our own experiences in harnessing these pigments to create paint and paintings, we also hope to inspire others to explore the potential of Streptomyces-derived pigments in art, industry, and perhaps most importantly, the classroom.

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