Not many plants survived this bitter winter, but a class at Columbus Signature Academy-New Tech High School managed to find a persistent evergreen plant — and on its leaves, students found something surprising.
Andrew Larson’s AP Biology class discovered a species called Sporobolomyces elongatus, a type of yeast that has only been categorized once before in Australia.
Larson said the discovery of a new species is always significant — whether it’s a new microbe, such as yeast, or a new insect or mammal.
“Discovering a new species is a big deal, especially given the fact that we’re in the midst of a mass extinction,” he said, referring to rising numbers of species disappearing from the planet. “The more we know, the better off we’re going to be in terms of the well-being of human kind.”
Partnering with Purdue
The discovery process began when John Cavaletto, teaching coordinator in Purdue University’s Department of Botany and Plant Pathology in West Lafayette, reached out to Larson for help with an experiment.
Mary Catherine Aime had joined Cavaletto’s department at Purdue a little more than a year ago. She brought with her an interest in fungi and the relationship between plants and microbes. Aime wanted a survey of the state, but Cavaletto knew grant funding would be unlikely.
“This is very, very basic research and faculty generally wouldn’t be able to obtain grant money to go out and research,” he said. “That money goes to specific problems and issues, but ours are broad questions. What are these yeasts? Who’s out there?”
So he contacted Larson, an old friend from his undergraduate studies at Purdue.
It is unusual for a research university to partner with a high school on a research project, according to Cavaletto. Although the collaboration this time proved to be mutually beneficial, there are reasons universities do not reach out to high schools more often, Cavaletto said.
“It’s tough for researchers to bring the level of research they’re doing down to a high school level,” he said. “Most (high school students) are just getting their feet wet in science. To take what is going on at a research level down to that is a really tough bridge.”
And Larson said there are reasons he does not form more partnerships with universities and industry — time and money.
“Doing stuff like this is going to take more time, it’s going to take more dealing with logistics,” he said. “But it is a great opportunity.”
The scientific method
Cavaletto put the research in the hands of Larson’s students and compiled it when it was complete.
The 10 students set out into the field to collect samples of evergreen plants without touching them. The plants were placed in a plastic bag and transported back to New Tech, where the lab work began:
The samples were placed on the lid of a sterile Petri plate containing potato dextrose agar, which aids microbiological growth.
The plates were closed, labeled and stored at room temperature for five to seven days.
The plates were then removed and inspected for yeast colonies.
When yeast was found, it was transferred to another Petri plate and stored for another three days.
These samples were once again transferred and stored for three days.
A polymerase chain reaction was utilized to amplify the DNA sequences of the yeast grown.
The samples were submitted for DNA sequencing.
“These guys truly participated in the scientific process,” Larson said.
Senior Amber Adams’ sample was the one yielding the discovery of the yeast, but all students went through the same steps.
No predetermined outcome
Working with Purdue allowed the New Tech students to conduct research without a predetermined “right answer,” something many high school students don’t have the chance to do.
Although the AP curriculum at New Tech teaches students to use the same technology and techniques used in the field, it’s usually through scripted experiments.
“A lot of times, even with this technology, there’s a lot of canned material, and I’ve used that canned material a lot of times, but it’s pre-packed. The outcome is predetermined,” Larson said.
Student Jessica Caldwell said it’s difficult to be engaged in an experiment when you know what’s going to happen.
That’s what made this project very different for the high school students.
“Even if this project would be arranged to be completed again next year, this year’s results are going to be totally unique and totally different from next year’s,” she said. “It’s always going to be a new learning process.”
And Cavaletto said the students could receive recognition from the scientific community.
“Several years down the road I can envision some sort of research publication that summarizes their findings,” he said. “Some students might end up making a mark in the scientific world.”