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State News

March 16, 2014

Columbus high school students discover rare yeast

COLUMBUS, Ind. (AP) — 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 told The Republic (http://bit.ly/1fRZEWg ), 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."

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.

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