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  1. Veach, Allison (Ed.)
    ABSTRACT Heavy metals (HMs) are known to modify bacterial communities both in the laboratory and in situ . Consequently, soils in HM-contaminated sites such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund sites are predicted to have altered ecosystem functioning, with potential ramifications for the health of organisms, including humans, that live nearby. Further, several studies have shown that heavy metal-resistant (HMR) bacteria often also display antimicrobial resistance (AMR), and therefore HM-contaminated soils could potentially act as reservoirs that could disseminate AMR genes into human-associated pathogenic bacteria. To explore this possibility, topsoil samples were collected from six public locations in the zip code 35207 (the home of the North Birmingham 35th Avenue Superfund Site) and in six public areas in the neighboring zip code, 35214. 35027 soils had significantly elevated levels of the HMs As, Mn, Pb, and Zn, and sequencing of the V4 region of the bacterial 16S rRNA gene revealed that elevated HM concentrations correlated with reduced microbial diversity and altered community structure. While there was no difference between zip codes in the proportion of total culturable HMR bacteria, bacterial isolates with HMR almost always also exhibited AMR. Metagenomes inferred using PICRUSt2 also predicted significantly higher mean relative frequencies in 35207 for several AMR genes related to both specific and broad-spectrum AMR phenotypes. Together, these results support the hypothesis that chronic HM pollution alters the soil bacterial community structure in ecologically meaningful ways and may also select for bacteria with increased potential to contribute to AMR in human disease. IMPORTANCE Heavy metals cross-select for antimicrobial resistance in laboratory experiments, but few studies have documented this effect in polluted soils. Moreover, despite decades of awareness of heavy metal contamination at the EPA Superfund site in North Birmingham, Alabama, this is the first analysis of the impact of this pollution on the soil microbiome. Specifically, this work advances the understanding of the relationship between heavy metals, microbial diversity, and patterns of antibiotic resistance in North Birmingham soils. Our results suggest that polluted soils carry a risk of increased exposure to antibiotic-resistant infections in addition to the direct health consequences of heavy metals. Our work provides important information relevant to both political and scientific efforts to advance environmental justice for the communities that call Superfund neighborhoods home. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available April 1, 2024
  2. null (Ed.)
    Course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) often involve a component where the outcomes of student research are broadly relevant to outside stakeholders. We wanted to see if building courses around an environmental justice issue relevant to the local community would impact students’ sense of civic engagement and appreciation of the relevance of scientific research to the community. In this quasi-experimental study, we assessed civic engagement and scientific identity gains ( N = 98) using pre- and post-semester surveys and open-ended interview responses in three different CUREs taught simultaneously at three different universities. All three CURES were focused on an environmental heavy metal pollution issue predominantly affecting African–Americans in Birmingham, Alabama. While we found increases in students’ sense of science efficacy and identity, our team was unable to detect meaningful changes in civic engagement levels, all of which were initially quite high. However, interviews suggested that students were motivated to do well in their research because the project was of interest to outside stakeholders. Our observations suggest that rather than directly influencing students’ civic engagement, the “broadly relevant” component of our CUREs engaged their pre-existing high levels of engagement to increase their engagement with the material, possibly influencing gains in science efficacy and science identity. Our observations are consistent with broader community relevance being an important component of CURE success, but do not support our initial hypothesis that CURE participation would influence students’ attitudes toward the civic importance of science. 
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