Student research helps 'change the world'

High school biology class contributes to International Barcode of Life database

A group of biology students at Los Altos High School took part this year in a worldwide science project by contributing small, but vital bits of information to a global database.

Meghan Shuff's Advanced Placement biology students served as researchers for the International Barcode of Life project -- an initiative to assemble a database of unique DNA "barcodes" for every animal, plant and fungus currently living on Earth.

"It is the largest biodiversity and genomics project ever undertaken," said Bob Hanner, an official with the project and associate professor at the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario at the University of Guelph. There are more than 1,000 researchers working on the iBOL project in at least 26 countries, according to Hanner. And some of those researchers are high school students. One scientist described the project as a "Yellow Pages" for all multicellular organisms on the planet.

It isn't common for high school students to participate in primary scientific research, Shuff and Hanner said. According to Shuff, most of the time her students are working on textbook assignments where the outcome is already known. It's even less common for the primary research of high school students to be published for the worldwide scientific community.

However, due to the barcode project's massive scale -- "We've literally mapped more stars in the sky than we have described species on Earth," Hanner observed -- the scientific community has turned to "crowdsourcing" to complete the necessary research. "We need to work with all of the resources that we have," Hanner said.

Shuff and her students have been more than happy to help. "It's extremely interesting," said Omri Fried, a Los Altos High School senior and project leader.

Fried intends to study biology in college and said working on the iBOL project was great "hands-on" preparation -- better than any other classwork he could imagine. "We felt as if this was our own research project, so we paid more attention to it and were very meticulous about it," Fried said.

"They're doing pretty much everything that a research scientist would do," Shuff said of her students' work on the assignment, which began in early January with a trip down to Ventura. There she and her class hopped on a boat with Ralph Imondi and Linda Santschi -- a pair of professional research biologists -- and cruised off the coast to collect rockfish samples for the iBOL database.

After a day on the boat, Shuff's class headed home with their rockfish tissue samples, using their laboratory instruments to examine the "barcode" portion of fish's DNA and record their observations.

According to Hanner, for every organism within the kingdom animalia, biologists need only to look at one particular stretch of DNA to determine the species. The same goes for fungi; and with plants it is a pair of markers that scientists look to for species confirmation.

Imondi and Santschi are co-directors of Coastal Marine Biolabs, a member organization of the worldwide consortium of iBOL research affiliates. The two scientists and their staff work with teachers and students teaching them how to properly harvest samples and record DNA barcodes.

While Shuff's students get to feel like professional scientists working on a project that is funded in part by the National Science Foundation, they are learning at the same time. "This project pretty much covers all we need to cover as far as curriculum goes. In fact, I feel that it covers the curriculum at a greater depth."

"What really gets students over the moon with this is that they cannot believe they have been given the opportunity to join the scientific community and contribute to the world's largest biodiversity genomics initiative," Santschi said. "They really are helping to change the world."

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