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Interview with Dr. Rebecca Batstone

Journalist: Yumnah Jafri

Yumnah Jafri: Welcome to SciSection. My name is Yumnah Jafri, and I am the journalist for the SciSection radio show, broadcasted on CFMU 93.3 FM radio station. We are here today with Dr. Batstone, thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me. How are you doing today?

Dr. Rebecca Batstone: I'm doing pretty great actually. It's a really nice day.

Yumnah Jafri: That’s great to hear. For our listeners who may not know who you are and the amazing work you're doing, I'll give you a chance to introduce yourself.

Dr. Batstone: I just started as an assistant professor in the biology department at McMaster. Before that, I did a brief stint at the University of Illinois as a postdoctoral researcher. I am Canadian, so I did my Ph.D. at University of Toronto and then my undergrad and my master's at Memorial University in Newfoundland, little bit east of here. That’s a little bit of where I’ve been, but I think generally I'm just really interested in symbiosis.

Yumnah Jafri: Generally speaking, what made you interested in conducting research on symbiosis or symbiotic microbes as a whole?

Dr. Batstone: Yeah, absolutely. As an undergrad, I was at Memorial University. Beautiful setting to do research in the marine biology world. That’s what got me into research. I had the opportunity even before undergrad to volunteer at a harp seal research facility. I got to work with harp seals and train them, which was really cool. I had one of those training whistles, I don't know if you've ever seen in shows. I got really into to marine biology, and then as I progressed through my undergrad, I wanted to do a master's.

So, the professor that I approached, her lab works on these itty-bitty little clams that form this crazy symbiosis. By symbiosis, I mean like an intimate interaction between different species. The clams were forming a symbiosis with these bacteria that are known as chemoautotrophic bacteria. They use compounds like chemicals. For example, in this system, they use sulfur as a way to produce energy. Instead of the sun, they're using sulfur, which is really interesting. How that benefitted the clam is that they're actually able to get an additional energy source from the microbe. I thought that that was super cool, the fact that these things that are so different were helping each other out…and so I did my master's in her lab, and I learnt about symbiosis more generally.

When it came down to what I wanted to do, which was doing more experimental work. The minute we tried to bring the clams back to the lab, they all died, and made it not really amenable to doing experiments. I switched gears completely when I moved to Toronto to do my Ph.D. I started working on the legume-rhizobium symbiosis, which is considered a model for studying symbiosis. It's a perfect system for doing experiments.

It was really just the questions I became interested in, then I used the best sort of model or tools in order to address the questions. So, I did work on the legume-rhizobium symbiosis and I have ever since. As a post-doctoral researcher, I was part of what's known as a research theme, and we were Infection Genomics for One Health. It was interesting. It was multidisciplinary, so there were folks in anthropology, virology, community ecology, all these different disciplines. I was still using my model,

but it really opened my eyes to thinking about symbiosis more generally and symbionts that interact with humans and plants and how they're all connected in some way, contributing to the health of these organisms.

That’s the underlying concept of One Health. It was a really great opportunity. It further solidified that I am interested in symbiosis and going forward I'm still using the legume-rhizobium symbiosis, but maybe eventually we'll get back to marine symbiosis because they're super cool. They're just…some of them are slightly less experimentally tractable.

Yumnah Jafri: Definitely, other undergrad students such as myself have always looked at the legume-rhizobium symbiosis as basically our first introduction to symbiotic microbes.

Dr. Batstone: Absolutely. Yeah.

Yumnah Jafri: I know that you have a lab at McMaster by the name of the Batstone Lab. So, what are some key takeaways from what you have learned in this lab?

Dr. Batstone: We have projects underway right now in the lab, but they're just starting. Just, because I just got on the ground, but I think I am bringing some projects to the table.

I think overall some key takeaways is that we think of symbiosis sometimes, people think of symbiosis as things that have to be beneficial. It's almost synonymous with beneficial, but it's actually not the case. Of course, we could have intimate interactions with microbes that are detrimental. Think about the pandemic, for example.

So, it's kind of understanding this as, it’s not great to categorize our symbionts into good and bad because it's often dependent on the context of whether they will have positive or negative effects on their host. I think some of the work that I've done, particularly as a Ph.D. student into my post-doc, I'm really interested in understanding how symbionts evolve. You have to do longer-term experimental evolution type of studies to get at that. We’re tracking how they're evolving, but then how does that evolution impact the host that we care about?

Again, I use legumes as a model, but you could think of that more generally. In a lot of our predictions, you might expect that the symbionts should evolve to be more beneficial or more detrimental. In my work so far, I see a signature where they tend to be more beneficial when they're paired with the exact same host. Sort of a longer-term interaction perhaps creates sort of the conditions where you're going to get more beneficial symbionts. But again, it's maybe because of the way I set up my experiment, and you might under a different context with different environments, different players involved see something completely different.

That's what's exciting about it. It’s very complex and there's so many factors that play into why symbionts are good or bad. I guess that’s what I'm interested in understanding, can we predict that?

Can we actually, if we know what the symbionts and the host are, can we predict if they are going to become better or worse for their hosts over time?

Yumnah Jafri: Personally speaking, I had no idea that the opposite, like how harmful a microbe is for the host can also be predicted and considered in this way. I feel like typically it's always how it can benefit someone. But it's so important, as you mentioned, after the pandemic, to actually take into account how these tiny little microbes are actually affecting our daily lives and everything to do with it.

Dr. Batstone: Absolutely.

Yumnah Jafri: You touched base on this, but what are you hoping to achieve through this research?

Dr. Batstone: Yeah, so really broad strokes, coming from a background of…I'm an evolutionary biologist and I tend to use sort of what's known as a quantitative genetics approach to evolution. There's many different ways to study evolution, but that's my background. It means that I'm really interested in understanding how traits evolve. Traits being…you can think of hair color as a trait. It's any sort of observable trait you can measure in an organism. Growth is another trait. Health is a really broad trait. Like how healthy is a person, for example. I'm interested in understanding how these traits evolved given a certain circumstance. Given climate change, how are our plants going to evolve and adapt to rapid changing conditions?

Part of the goal, or part of getting to that question is understanding what are all the factors that influence traits. We know that genetic variation is how evolution comes into this. Genetic variation will contribute to these traits, and then also in the environment and epigenetics and all these other fun terms that kind of capture everything else besides genetic variation.

Bringing my sort of symbiotic lens to this framework, I'm really interested in understanding how, not just genetic variation in the hosts that we're measuring the traits on, but how genetic variation in their symbiotic microbes or communities, the microbiome, how that also influences those traits.

We have very good evidence that in many cases, you cannot predict the evolution of those traits without taking into account the symbiotic microbes that are interacting with the organism. I think it's a pretty cool framework to think about this. But again, it's very complex. I think that's kind of overall. It's learning how we can better design or engineer plants to deal with climate change better or to be more nutritious for humans. So, it is a very sort of trait-based goal that I have in mind.

Yumnah Jafri: That's incredible. Especially, you mentioned climate change and nutrition of plants. As our population grows, it's so essential that we actually conduct research on how to solve these issues before they're upon us.

Dr. Batstone: Exactly. Yeah.

Yumnah Jafri: Going back a bit further into your past, what do you think you did differently compared to your peers when you were an undergraduate student, that helped you become who you are today, or pursue what you are pursuing today.

Dr. Batstone: I had the privilege of conducting independent research as an undergrad. I did a thesis project…very, very independent. I did have a bit of guidance, but I was kind of thrown into it. It turned out that I ended up really enjoying that aspect. I think if I didn't have that opportunity, I wouldn't have realized how much I actually love doing research. I think a lot of my peers also had that opportunity, but some might not have known that was an option or just maybe just didn't seem appealing. I was a little bit curious of, would I actually enjoy doing something like this? So, that kind of set me on the path to where I am now.

Yumnah Jafri: So, you would say just generally getting the opportunity to do some research in your undergrad career, right?

Dr. Batstone: Yeah, absolutely. There's various ways in undergrad that you can get that, like clearly there's lab courses that you can do lab work, but I think what's very different here is that it's self-driven research. When I talk about independent research, you are the person coming up with the question. You have to figure out, what do we already know about this? But what's also the gap? Learning how to figure out the novelty of the questions you're asking is nontrivial. There's a process to learn that, and then actually figuring out the best approach to do it. You're the one planning out your experiments, designing them, ordering the materials. It's pretty involved. I think if students have that opportunity, it's pretty amazing.

Some students still, at the end of the day, are like this isn't what I want to do. But I think that's valuable in and of itself to be like, I'd rather go somewhere. Maybe you'll do a professional program next, or you want to do wet lab stuff where you're given projects, and you're just working on that. It's a great learning experience.

Yumnah Jafri: So, keeping your mind open to whatever opportunities might come your way?

Dr. Batstone: Absolutely. Yeah.

Yumnah Jafri: You really don't know what might completely change the trajectory of your entire career or your life.

Dr. Batstone: A hundred percent.

Yumnah Jafri: Thank you so much for sharing that with me and for our final question today, what is the coolest or most interesting microbe in your personal opinion?

Dr. Batstone: In my personal opinion, I feel like anyone who knows what I research is going to expect that I'll say rhizobia, which are the nitrogen-fixing bacteria that associate with legumes. I totally think they're amazing. But there's also a lot of other really cool microbes out there. So, if I were to just mention one, Wolbachia is an insect gut symbiont, and it's everywhere. Like every insect. I'm exaggerating a little bit, but it's pretty much across the globe. The symbiont is present, but it can have the most wide-ranging effects on the host from being a classic pathogen to a hundred percent mutually like that. If you don't have it, you can't survive. Just the fact that it could have such a wide range of effects and in some cases there's good evidence that it can even change the trajectory of evolution itself of its host. In some cases, it can cause a mechanism that leads to potential speciation in flies, for example. The fact that this little, tiny microbe has such a profound effect on, evolution of its host I think is really interesting. I have yet to do any formal research on Wolbachia but maybe one day.

Yumnah Jafri: I've never heard of that one either. The fact that it's so essential to everything to do with life is very cool.

And that's it for this week of SciSection! Make sure you check out our podcast available on global platforms for our latest interviews.


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