Computational Analysis of Methane-Producing Environments, particularly the Stomach of a Cow

Grace Dai, COL ’25, Winston-Salem, NC

Ever since learning that livestock agriculture contributes significantly to global warming, I’ve been curious about ways to reduce those emissions. Over my COVID gap year, I worked with Symbrosia, a biotechnology company growing red macroalgae that can reduce enteric methane emissions from cattle by over 60%. It was incredibly exciting to me that a change in the gut microbiome could impact the gaseous outputs of a cow’s digestion.

During my freshman year at Penn, I felt disconnected from my interest in the intersection of biology, agriculture, and climate change. I sought paid internships in healthcare biotech, but the thought of being aligned with a mission like Symbrosia’s never left me. Upon looking into climate and ag-related research opportunities at Penn, I found Dr. Pitta’s lab, the Agricultural Systems and Microbial Genomics (ASMG) lab. It turned out that she had been a senior author of a paper on the red macroalgae I had worked with at Symbrosia, and working in her lab seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to dig deeper into that field.

My major in computational biology and data science has allowed me to work with a variety of the ASMG lab members on projects this summer. The core goal of my research is to identify and map out all the microbial communities and interactions that contribute to methane metabolism. I’ve started to chip away at this project by starting with the methanogenic archaea, building a database of methanogen isolates, their metabolic pathways, and gene sequences. My bioinformatics mentor at the ASMG lab has provided me with invaluable knowledge regarding the framework and workflow of metagenomics studies and the computational tools used in the process, including the usage of High Performance Computing to conduct tasks such as quality checks on metagenomes.

One of challenging and exciting aspects of studying the cow rumen is the complexity of its microbial environment. I’ve learned that so many factors contribute to a specific emission phenotype outside of just the microbiome, including host genetics, feed intake, feed composition, and bowel movement. By integrating these factors into a comprehensive database, I also hope to create a comprehensive and holistic model of all stakeholders of a cow’s big burp. As I plan to work with ASMG Labs for the coming two years, I look forward to all that I will learn in microbiology and application of computer science to biological problems. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity that the Career Services Award has given me to explore my area of interest, as it has given me the financial support to live in Philadelphia over the summer and travel to Kennett Square to collaborate with lab members in-person.

This is part of a series of posts by recipients of the 2023 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they spent their summer. You can read the entire series here.

By Career Services
Career Services