UMD Biological Sciences Major Will Move to Germany to Continue Novel Bacteria Research After Graduation

Garmani Thein will resume studying two new bacteria species he helped discover last summer.

Garmani Thein in the lab
Garmani Thein is pictured working with a glove box, which is used to prevent anaerobic bacteria from being exposed to oxygen. He described learning how to use a glove box as one of the most memorable parts of his research. “It’s a pain and it’s sweaty and it’s hard to work in that glove box, but it’s something that’s also pretty cool and fun,” he said. Photo courtesy of Garmani Thein.

While studying microbes taken from a bioreactor in the German city of Tübingen, University of Maryland biological sciences major Garmani Thein found something he and his fellow researchers weren’t expecting: two new species of bacteria.

“We found 10 microbes—eight of which we had found before, but two of them were novel species of bacteria,” Thein said. “Not only have we not found them in a bioreactor before, but no one else has found them. We looked in databases and nothing was there.”

Thein helped discover these mysterious microbes last summer while working in the lab of Lars Angenent, a professor at the Eberhard Karl University of Tübingen in southwest Germany. After he graduates in May 2023, Thein will return to the Angenent Lab for a year to finish what he and his colleagues started—this time as a lab technician.

Thein will work with the research team to characterize and classify the two novel species, paying particular attention to the conditions that allow them to grow and any antibiotics they might be resistant to. Gaining a better understanding of these bacteria could pave the way for more efficient forms of green energy that are powered by microorganisms.

“The biggest thing is to optimize it and see what works,” Thein said. “The lab knows what’s worked before—they already have bioreactor systems in place—but they want to make it better.”

‘Bang for your buck’ bacteria

Since 2019, researchers at UMD and the University of Tübingen have collaborated on projects. The partnership began when Angenent and one of his former Ph.D. students—Catherine Spirito, an assistant clinical professor and the faculty leader for the molecular diagnostics stream in UMD’s First-Year Innovation & Research Experience (FIRE) program—formed a collaboration with UMD Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics Professor Wade Winkler. The group applied for and received a research grant from the German Reinhard Frank Foundation, which encourages exchanges between international universities.

This funding enabled a postdoctoral researcher from the Angenent Lab to work with FIRE summer students at UMD and also sponsored two UMD students’ research in Tübingen. Thein is the second UMD student to travel to Germany through this partnership.

Spirito knew Thein through FIRE—he participated in the program as a freshman and continued on as a peer research mentor—and thought he would be a good fit for the exchange program.

“During his time in my lab, Garmani showed a clear interest in synthetic biology and bioengineering,” Spirito said. “He also excelled at mentoring new student researchers in my lab.”

Thein was up for the challenge. Once he touched down in Tübingen, he began assisting Kurt Gemeinhardt, a graduate student in the Angenent Lab. The lab is largely focused on using bioreactors to create renewable energy. Bacteria have an important role to play because they break down organic waste pumped into bioreactors, such as manure or acid whey. Through a process called reverse beta oxidation, this breakdown of waste produces energy in the form of three types of long carbon chains: C4, C6 and C8.

Thein helped strain and isolate bacteria taken from a bioreactor and sent them off for gene sequencing.

“All kinds of bacteria were living there, and we didn’t know what they were, so we wanted to find out through the isolation process,” Thein explained.

Ultimately, Thein and Gemeinhardt discovered two new microbes and learned that they can create C8—the longest of the three carbon chains. This was welcome news for researchers who want to make “clean energy” even cleaner.

“These two bacteria create C8, which is the carbon that provides the most bang for your buck,” Thein said. “It’s the largest carbon, which means that when we break it up one time we get more energy than if we’d break up a C4. So it’s important that we get these bacteria that can form and create C8 molecules because we want that quick energy where the output is greater than the input.”

Garmani Thein seated at a table with four fellow researchers
Garmani Thein (far left) is pictured during an outing with fellow Angenent Lab researchers in Tübingen, Germany, last summer. Photo courtesy of Garmani Thein.

The Angenent Lab was so impressed with Thein’s work that they invited him to return for another year of research after he graduated. Thein nearly turned down the offer because he thought it would thwart his plans of pursuing a career in pediatric medicine, but some of his UMD classmates convinced him it was the right move.

“I didn’t want to go for a year because I thought it would take me away from my grad school or med school track,” Thein said. “But I was talking to people here and a lot of them said, ‘It’s an experience you’ll regret not doing.’ To go back for a year will be nice. I met great friends there, too.”

This time around, Thein might even have the chance to name the bacteria he helped discover—an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

“Kurt and I joked that if we discovered two bacteria, we would each name one after ourselves,” Thein said. “Kurt told me, ‘Now we have something to brag about.’ I told my family right away.”

Thein said they hope to publish at least one paper detailing their findings and present their research at conferences.

The road ahead

In addition to his research in Germany, Thein also works in Winkler’s Lab on campus. Thein contributed to the development of a new biosensor that relies on RNA scaffolding, which could enable fluorescence to be detected at the single-cell level. This technique could potentially be applied to medical research in the future. Thein defended his thesis on this research topic in late March, enabling him to graduate with departmental honors from the Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics.

Outside the lab, Thein serves as editor-in-chief of The Scribe, a collective blog run by the UMD American Medical Student Association that shares articles and opinions related to medicine.

“We give the writers free rein to write about anything they want, as long as they relate it to medicine,” Thein said. “I’ve been trying to get into science writing because I think it will help my career.”

He also assists with marketing and external events for Lean On Me, a peer-to-peer text line that offers mental health support for UMD students.

In his spare time, Thein enjoys tennis, reading comic books, baking creme brulee and cycling, which will serve him well in Tübingen, where he plans to get around by bike.

“Tübingen has a lot of hills, so if you took the Stamp [Student Union] hill and increased it by five everywhere, that’s what biking is like,” Thein said. “But the flat parts are very nice.”

Thein looks forward to being back in Tübingen, which he describes as a diverse and dynamic college town. He’s excited to pick up where he left off with his research, and he credited Spirito for introducing him to an opportunity he may not have had otherwise.

“She played a big role in the Germany experience, but also my interest in research as well,” Thein said. “Dr. Spirito's lab is about giving your best effort and learning. That kind of hard-working attitude and perseverance is what I want to bring with me to Germany.”

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The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 8,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and nine interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $250 million.