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The Lab in Time of COVID-19

The main halls of Bond LSC are empty due to researchers being told to work from home. | photo by Roger Meissen, Bond LSC.

By Lauren Hines | Bond LSC

On an average day, you can find post doctorate Norman Best
surrounded by corn in the greenhouse or at his bench in the McSteen lab doing
molecular work. However, since Columbia and state leaders issued a stay-at-home
order on March 25 to prevent the spread of COVID-19, this means Bond LSC is
mostly empty and researchers like Best are at home writing.

definitely made me appreciate what I had before,” Best said.

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that can cause
respiratory illness in humans. They’re found circulating among animals, and
then passed to humans. While the world has seen dangerous coronavirus outbreaks
including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and Middle East
respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS) in 2012, the 2019 emergence of COVID-19
has spread much more quickly.

According to the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention
, COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets
produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. Staying at home and
avoiding contact with others will help prevent the spread.

Most researchers are working from a distance, like Best who
is writing a paper on how the plant hormones auxin and brassinosteroid affect
lateral meristem growth. However, some are deemed essential whether it’s to
water plants, finish crucial experiments or study COVID-19 itself.

Marc Johnson, professor of molecular microbiology and
immunology, is currently studying glycoproteins which are proteins on the
surface of viruses that dictate what cell they’re going to infect. Even though
Johnson usually works on HIV, he’s shifting his focus to COVID-19 and its
glycoproteins called, spike.

Johnson is taking other viruses and replacing their
glycoproteins with COVID-19 spike proteins to basically create a safe version
of our current coronavirus. This will allow him to do multiple tests to try to
inhibit viral entry.

In addition, these experiments can also test the
effectiveness of antibodies. Recovered patients are donating their plasma — blood
without red blood cells and just antibodies — to transfer their
coronavirus-fighting antibodies to other patients.

Marc Johnson
Marc Johnson observes cells modified with CRISPR under the microscope. | photo by Jennifer Lu, Bond LSC.

course, if you take plasma from a patient, you want to make sure that there are
the antibodies you want in there, so that’s where my [experiment] would come
into play to check whether there’s a high level of neutralizing antibodies in
their serum,” Johnson said. “If there is, then you know it’s good for
injecting. It might be helpful for the patient.”

For those who aren’t working on COVID-19, the interruption
has some feeling frustrated.

When Best was in the lab, he was doing molecular work on
creating a CRISPR construct. CRISPR is a method of editing genes, essentially
splicing DNA into a cell. Now, it’s sitting in the freezer half done.

“I’m working on finishing up a
few publications that I’ve had data for that I’ve actually

not been able to analyze before,”
Best said. “I had not taken the time to analyze as much as I have now because I
am sitting all day on the computer…However, there are still a few things left
to do in the lab that have been delayed because of quarantining.”

Jean Camden,
senior research associate in the Weisman lab, goes into Bond LSC once a week to
check on the mouse breeding colony in addition to working from home.

us, the timing was good,” Camden said. “We had just finished some large
experiments, and we are now writing, all of us. We have plenty of work to do at

For many
researchers, as Camden describes, writing papers is one of the last tasks to

there’s no excuse,” Camden said. There’s nothing else to do but write.”

even the mounds of data researchers have been sitting on will eventually run

“If [the end of social distancing] doesn’t happen within the next two or three weeks, then we will be getting behind on getting experiments done,” Camden said.

far, MU has moved in-person summer classes online, but is hopeful to re-open
campus in the fall under a “new normal.”

end of social distancing] should depend on our preparedness and the resources
because one of the reasons why I think we shut down is that we weren’t ready to
cater for all the people that were going to be sick, and so the best option was
to prevent it,” said Kwaku Tawiah, fifth year graduate student who studies
Ebola in the Donald Burke lab. “I don’t know when normal life can return as we
knew it before.”

though there’s a lot of uncertainty of what’s ahead, Bond LSC researchers are
learning to adapt and are continuing their research.

is very fortunate that I have been able to work at home and keep my job,”
Camden said. “A lot of people here in Columbia have been laid off, and I feel
bad for the terrible things that have happened. So, I appreciate the position
that I’m in.”

At the moment, Best is still sitting at home with his dog analyzing data and writing. He expects his paper on lateral suppressor1 to be published soon among many others in the works.

“I think we’re all ready to get back to normal life,” Camden said.

Article originally published on Decoding Science.