I’m sure for any undergrad when it’s time for your research, it feels like finally you are going to put your hands into the real work in the field. The problem is when you like too many areas in the subject, like when you are a chemistry freak, it becomes so hard to select a topic to start your research on. Also another important fact to consider would be who your supervisor is going to be, because many aspects of your research depend on how flexible and supportive the supervisor is. Creating your own space is also very important to achieve growth through a research project rather than being spoon fed by the supervisor at every step.
Having said all that let me tell you about what I got myself into by the end of Jan. I was so lucky to meet a wonderful research supervisor at the faculty, Prof. E. Dilip De Silva, Senior Professor of Organic Chemistry and Organic Chemistry Chair of University of Colombo, whom I found very inspirational and committed from the start. His work is more into medicinal chemistry which heavily relies on principles of Organic Chemistry and since I had a dying interest in organics, I found a good work match. I would also like to acknowledge my additional supervisor Dr. Dilrukshi Wijayaratne, Senior Lecturer in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry for making sure every small detail is right. But to be quite frank here, I had some terrible nights trying to figure out what exactly I wanted to do, because there were plenty of options out there. Not to brag about myself, but scoring high grades in most subject areas, it never hinted me of sections I was weak in or fields I might not do so well at. But finally following my instincts I ended up here, for which I feel quite proud of today.
The topic of my research goes like this, “Investigation of the antimicrobial properties of endophytic fungi of endemic flora of Sri Lanka
”. OK, for those of you who are wondering what those ("endophytic fungi") creatures are, it’s a group of fungi that grows inside plant tissues. Fungi and other micro-organisms that grow on the surface of plant material are called ‘epiphytes’. So, one of the major hurdles was to isolate the endophytes without having epiphytic contaminations. Research on endophytic fungi started quite recently with the discovery of their importance as the latest fungal source available, after having carried out extensive work on soil fungi.
My job is to test whether the fungal metabolites show antibacterial or antifungal properties with the potential of developing it into a new drug/antibiotic. To achieve this, I would have to rely on 75% luck I would say, because you never know whether the fungal strains you isolated would show any activity or not. (nervously keeping my fingers crossed) The logic behind the project is, that if these fungi show antibacterial or antifungal properties, they are very likely protecting their host plant from diseases and environmental stresses, so if we are able to isolate those compounds from the fungi, we could use them in drugs to protect humans from various diseases too.
The plant I chose to isolate my fungal strains was, Neoclitsea cassia
, commonly known as ‘Wild Cinnamon’ and natively known as ‘Dawul Kurundu’. This is an endemic plant to Sri Lanka which also has medicinal value. I used PDA and PDB media to culture and grow the fungi and at this stage I have started to culture in small scale in preparation of the extraction of the metabolites. Before extracting, the strains should be allowed to grow for at least 21 days in order to reach the required maturity. I was able to isolate 4 different types of fungal strains, I got whitish and greyish branching like structures, another had a flowery shape and was bluish green in colour and the other looked like a pure white puff :-D I was appointed to carry out my research at the MRI (Medical Research Institute), which is a prestigious institution in the country close to 115 years old. This institution conducts high level research and provides many more services to the public by performing numerous medical tests and examination in the labs.
The impact of my research area on the society would be to make new drugs which are more affordable and freely available to the public as rare plants are hard to find and cutting down trees for medicine would kill the endemic diversity in the region. Therefore once the fungal strains of the plants are isolated they can be sub-cultured in the lab and can be grown to industrial scale just by using a tiny piece from the bark or a leaf of the plant. This will produce higher quantities of valuable medicinal compounds without having to destroy rare trees, which inturn will make the product quite affordable by low production costs that can be used in the making of drugs.
Let me share a few pictures here.
Fungal strain1 Fungal strain 2 Fungal strain 3 Fungal strain 4