The Genetics of Anthrax

Kevin Claunch ’14 postponed medical school to do research in microbiology. His work might lead to medicines able to disarm anthrax or even common staph infections.

This article by Caroline Collier ’98 (MLA ’17) originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of TCU Magazine.

Studying the microscopic building blocks of the bacteria that causes anthrax might sound dangerous or complex to some college students, but Kevin Claunch ’14 understood the potential impact of his research endeavor.

Photo of Kevin Claunch

Kevin Claunch ’14 (Photo by Carolyn Cruz)

If Claunch could inactivate one crucial gene in the bacteria, drug researchers might use his research to develop a medicine to disarm specific genes as a pathway to inactivating anthrax or even common staph infections, something that could have “huge clinical significance,” he said.

To be specific, Claunch, who is now a master’s student in biology at TCU, explored how the lrgA gene of Bacillus anthracis might apply to the functioning of the human immune system.

But the Fort Worth native originally did not plan to study in microbiology. When he started at TCU, he was in the pre-med track with plans to become a physician. His experience a microbiology course taught by Shauna McGillivray, associate professor of biology, however, piqued his curiosity and changed the direction of his studies.

“I never thought I was going to fall in love with it,” said Claunch about his work with the genetics of bacteria.

He begged McGillivray for a spot in her research lab. She granted him one. The professor “gave me this focused and individualized attention,” said Claunch.

McGillivray said lab research augments classroom material, and the most important lessons involve a certain measure of independence. “I’ll help you, but you try to take some ownership,” the professor said of her mentoring style.

Around 40 percent of biology majors take on substantial research projects, said McGillivray.

In assigning research areas to undergraduate students, McGillivray explained that she likes to first assess “what are their goals and how is this experience going to be helpful or beneficial to them?”

Considering Claunch’s interest in health sciences, McGillivray gave him a study that might apply to both microbiology and a pathogenic human health problem. No researchers in her lab had tackled lrgA and B genes, and specifically, whether making those genes inactive might weaken bacterial cell walls to the point of allowing for effective antibiotic treatment of thorny pathogens.

Read more in TCU Magazine.