High School Students Discover Biodiversity Treasure Trove
UA associate professor Betsy Arnold and Tucson High Magnet School science teacher Margaret Wilch developed a science course that allowed high school students to participate in real desert biology research and discover a multitude of new species. The students' work has potential applications that could benefit a range areas, including sustainable agriculture, the biofuels industry and medicine.

By Shelley Littin, University Communications
June 26, 2013

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Margaret Wilch takes her science students from Tucson High Magnet School into the field to experience science in the real world.
Margaret Wilch takes her science students from Tucson High Magnet School into the field to experience science in the real world. (Photo: Betsy Arnold)

Imagine jump-starting a career in science by discovering new species while still a teenager.

That’s exactly what Tucson High Magnet School students have done, in a science course University of Arizona associate professor Betsy Arnold developed with science teacher Margaret Wilch.

Students took their learning out of the classroom and applied it to collecting and genetically analyzing endophytes, which are symbiotic, non-harmful bacteria or fungi that live within a plant for part of its lifetime.

Their work was related to investigations Arnold and her team currently manage at the UA. 

“I realized the work we do with endophytes introduces a lot of principles of science,” Arnold said. “Setting up a research question, setting up a hypothesis and testing it with methods that are very straightforward for students to learn.”

With funding from the National Science Foundation, the Western National Parks Association, Science Foundation Arizona and also a Partners in Science Supplement Grant from Research Corporation, Arnold and Wilch organized the course for high school students to be taught during the spring of 2012 and 2013.

Students collected and analyzed data during the 2012 course, and that data has since been used as the basis for a scientific paper expected to be published in a forthcoming issue of Fungal Ecology, a peer-reviewed scholarly journal.

“The students' discovery was so important because they discovered these new species that no one had ever recorded before,” Arnold said. “It's a biodiversity treasure trove of research questions that others can follow up on for probably a hundred years from now.”

Arnold also said "we weren't just targeting a few honors students, or a few students at a time," noting that the work of more than 130 students in four class is represented in the paper. Involving such a sizable number of students, who were sophomore and juniors interested in biology, in active research proved to be a novel approach, Arnold said. 

“We took them from the earliest stage of ‘what's a plant? What’s a fungus?’ to the final stage of analyzing sequence data,” Arnold said.

The high school students spent time in the field collecting plants at Saguaro National Park and learned how to sterilize and plate plant leaves in a lab. But their work didn’t stop there: Plates were returned to Tucson High Magnet School (THMS) where students monitored fungal growth.

In the molecular biology facility that Wilch has assembled at THMS, the high school students were trained in polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, a genetic tool to extract DNA from organisms. The extracted DNA was sequenced at the UA Genetics Core and the gene sequencing results were given back to the students to interpret and analyze.

“Many of them talked about the experience of doing real science, being away from the textbook and the lab," Arnold said. "It's cool to be in nature, to be in a university lab for a period of time and to discover something new. That novelty was powerful for them and fun and informative for us."

Not only did the students gain the opportunity to participate in real science, they aided in discovery of potentially a multitude of new species.

“It's been estimated that 95 percent of endophytes are new species, and when I look at our data we have essentially no perfect matches in the national databases to sequence data that have been gathered previously," Arnold said. "We expect there are a large number of new species in the students’ samples.”

Arnold estimates that between 30 and 50 new species of bacteria and fungi could be discovered from the project data.

“Our overarching hypothesis is that microbes assist in that survival, and these microbes are ecologically flexible enough that we can isolate them from desert plants and introduce them into a crop plant,” Arnold said.

Theoretically, the symbiotic benefit that the fungi provide to native desert plants could also enhance the livelihood and survival of agricultural crops.

“It also turns out that these fungi produce huge numbers of pharmacologically active compounds,” Arnold added. “We have collaborated with Leslie Gunatilaka, a UA professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment and director of the Southwest Center for Natural Products Research and Commercialization, who describes new compounds and looks specifically at anti-cancer properties of those metabolites.”

The newly discovered endophytes also may have the potential for broad contribution to human livelihood and sustainability, by possibly improving crop success in agriculture and potentially yielding medicinal compounds. Some of the species may have industrial potential as well, possibly aiding in the production of biofuels.

The discoveries also may yield valuable information relating to climate change.

A major distinct aspect of endophytes in the Tucson area and the Desert Southwest, Arnold said, is their unique heat tolerance. Understanding how these species interact with desert-dwelling plants could help scientists understand how plants are able to live and even thrive in hot, dry climate zones.

“We have conditions that select for very distinctive fungi that are unique compared to other parts of the country,” said Arnold. “It appears that in the desert, if you're a fungus, you want to get into a plant. If it's hot and dry, you're going to bake out there. Inside you have that symbiotic environment, and plants are surprisingly amenable to taking up those fungi.”

Wilch said she hopes to continue the workshops with future biotechnology classes at THMS.

“It’s been a fabulous experience for me and my students,” Wilch said.

Arnold also said the workshop not only benefited the high school students, but also UA undergraduate and graduate students who helped to lead sessions and aid students in the development of their research.

“Over the past few years we have had the sincere pleasure of working with six of Wilch's high school students on projects in our lab and each has won awards through their hard work at local, regional, and even international competitions,"Arnold said.

Nick Massimo, a research technician in the Arnold lab and recent UA graduate, was one of those who supported the workshop.

“It was really great to take them into the field and teach them ecology and just the plants and animals in some cases that were out there and be able to connect them to the endophytes they never thought about being there,” Massimo said.

“One day I explained to them that if you related this to Darwin going to all the different islands and finding all these different species, it's happening here in your back yard and you don't even think about it.”


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Betsy Arnold

The UA School of Plant Sciences