Extremophiles and Systems Biology: Dr. Amy Schmid

Headshot of Dr Amy Schmid, woman with short brown hair and blue sweater

In this episode of BioGist, Tyler Edwards, a member of the class of 2022 majoring in Biology, interviews Dr. Amy Schmid, an Associate Professor in the Biology department at Duke University.

Listen to hear Dr. Schmid’s explanation of how archaebacteria use genetic adaptations to survive extreme environments and her take on the importance of bringing young people into science.

To find out more about Dr. Schmid, visit her lab website at https://schmidlab.biology.duke.edu/, and follow her on Twitter @SchmidLab.



Listen here


research, duke university, science, microbes, teach, inspire, DNA, survive, genome, salt, biology, extreme environments, extremophiles, hypersaline adapted organisms, systems biology


Tyler Edwards, Dr. Amy Schmid

Tyler Edwards  00:01

Hi there. I'm Tyler Edwards and welcome to BioGist, where we bring you the gist of biology at Duke University. This time I had the great opportunity to speak with Dr. Amy Schmid.

Dr. Amy Schmid  00:11

Hi there. I'm Amy Schmid. I'm an associate professor in the biology department. This year, I'm co Director of Graduate Studies and excited to work with graduate students. I teach biology 201, which is introduction to molecular biology. And I also teach general microbiology bio 212. My research deals with how microbes survive in extreme environments. And in particular, we focus on saturated salt lakes, like the Great Salt Lake and the Dead Sea and places like that. We use systems biology methods to try to understand the molecular networks and how those networks are used dynamically by these microbes to withstand extreme environments.

Tyler Edwards  00:55

What is an example of one of the model organisms you work with and what is an extremophile?

Dr. Amy Schmid  01:01

So we work on hypersaline adapted organisms. If you've ever flown over the salt flats in the San Francisco Bay, they give it the pink color, because they have these natural sunscreens and photo pigments that protect them from the high desert sun, or the extreme sunlight in the Bay Area. For example, they're really unusual because most cells try to get all the salt out. But that takes a lot of energy. So they take all the salt in. So there are a lot of unusual adaptations and molecular processes that change in response to those extremes. But there are other organisms on the earth that are considered extremophiles, like those that live in deep sea hydrothermal vents, that thrive at boiling temperatures. Just incredible life in withstand pretty much everything you throw at it. This is mostly single celled microbial life that we find in these unexpected places that people long thought were sterile. They're really interesting, too, because they produce natural products, like they can make biodegradable plastics when they're starving for carbon. And also places like Mars and other planets, they have these salt deposits, sort of on the edge of a crater where there was evaporation. And so who knows, maybe they could survive on Mars.

Tyler Edwards  02:16

That is so cool. Only one way to find out! So you mentioned that you use a lot of genomic and genetic techniques in your work. I'm curious if in a few words, you could describe what makes these extremophiles different than humans at a genetic or genomic level?

Dr. Amy Schmid 02:37

Well, I think one really interesting way that has me thinking right now is these microbes often have multiple copies of their genome. So humans are diploid, so they have two copies of their genome. But these hypersaline archaea have up to 30 copies of their genome.

Tyler Edwards 02:54


Dr. Amy Schmid  02:56

Yeah, and UV, other and other toxins can damage DNA and sort of cut it up into pieces. And it's thought that they can use these 30 copies to stitch or knit their DNA back together and use it as a template. They're really good at DNA repair, especially those breaks the break both strands of the DNA. So that's really unusual. What about these organisms inspires us specifically, they sort of inspire me to keep pushing the envelope and keep exploring, stay resilient, despite challenges, because I'm like, wow, they can survive saturated salts in like boiling temperatures. I can do this. I can get through this.

Tyler Edwards  03:35

Oh, okay. So one thing that I wanted to bring up is the first time that I met you was when you came to my High School of Science and Math at to present on a paper that we read from you. So I saw that you do like other types of outreach work and curious about how that, like, fits into all of this for you.

Dr. Amy Schmid  03:54

I'm really keen on sort of getting folks inspired to get into science as early as they can. One of the ways I think has been, at least from my own experience, really effective is just engaging folks in real world research, like getting across how this research is important. And they're an integral part of that research. And so starting with the School of Science and Math here, here in Durham, we've done those journal clubs, we've also done science immersion courses. And then what we've learned from that experience, we've started to try to get the word out to other high school students. We've done teacher workshops. So high school teachers come in the summer for a couple of days. And we go through those experiments with them. And they bring that to their high schools. We've also had scientists from our lab teach similar workshops to undergraduates at University of Puerto Rico to make those connections and there are several students who are doing PhDs here in the States now, from those course that we've taught there. I just love the idea of again, pushing the frontier and like bringing as many people in as possible getting different perspectives on these, you know, unique forms of life and really engaging folks as early as we can in research.

Tyler Edwards  05:05

I can tell you firsthand that it works.

Dr. Amy Schmid  05:08

So glad to hear that. That's so rewarding. Awesome.

Tyler Edwards  05:13

I'm curious about what else you love to do outside of work and spending time with these lovely pink extremophiles?

Dr. Amy Schmid  05:21

Yeah, um, one of my new favorite things is to do fun activities with my daughter. And she's, she's six, almost six, and she has gotten interested in doing science experiments that will, like we made fermented blueberries one time, we, yeah, we we dig in the garden and look for root nodules for nitrogen fixation. Like, I love being creative with her and like seeing the discovery through her eyes is you know, all the more inspiring to keep me going and research.

Tyler Edwards  05:54

Thanks for joining us for BioGist. Also, thank you to the Duke University biology department for supporting this podcast and Poddington Bear for the music. See you next time.