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Exploring the World of Bacteria

Bioinformatics and computational biology graduate student Michael France studies bacterial growth

By Tara Roberts

Michael FranceThe planet is home to billions of bacteria belonging to thousands of species. Michael France, a doctoral student in the bioinformatics and computational biology graduate program at the University of Idaho, studies how bacterial populations’ growth rates and spatial structuring affect their evolutionary trajectories.

One of his ongoing projects is comparing slow- and fast-growing bacteria to see how their populations change.  His work so far indicates that slower populations show signs of having greater diversity.

“The goal is to explain how the diversity of bacteria – which is enormous – arises and persists,” he explains.

As a student in bioinformatics and computational biology, or BCB, France has the opportunity to work within UI’s Institute for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies. The institute, known as IBEST, encompasses multiple research and education programs, along with students, faculty, staff and facilities, related to real-time evolution.

His adviser is IBEST’s director, Larry Forney, a University Distinguished Professor of biological sciences.

“He’s the kind of mentor I was looking for,” France says. “He gives me a lot of space, which allows me to develop my own ideas which is crucial to becoming a scientist.”

In Forney’s lab, France also has studied layers of bacteria known as biofilms. His primary investigations involve E. coli, which serves as a model system, and a strain of Burkholderia that was isolated from a bottle of nasal spray and is a potential manufacturing contaminant.

“We ask questions about how antibiotic resistance develops and persists in biofilms,” he says.

France says IBEST has been a tremendous help to his research and education. The institute supports the BCB program, and France is funded by a partial BCB fellowship. IBEST also maintains UI’s cutting-edge core research facilities, such as the genomics and computational cores, which play a major role in France’s research.

In addition, France says IBEST’s weekly seminars with resident and visiting faculty have allowed him to learn about new topics in biology and evolution. He also enjoys the interdisciplinary nature of the BCB program, which requires courses in math and statistics in addition to biology.

France benefits from campus networks and communities, but says his favorite thing about studying at UI is the ability he has to pursue questions and answers that interest him.

“I like independently coming up with my own ideas and having the freedom to explore them.”