Former Salthawk credits Hutch High for success in algae research, award

[USA] Hutchinson’s Colton Harper spent his summer working on a research project seeking a way to reduce nitrate in the Gulf of Mexico and prevent algae blooms that kill off other undersea life.

The project earned the team from the University of Nebraska a silver award in the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) research competition at the end of October.

Harper said the team’s idea was to modify bacteria to reduce nitrate (chemical formula NO3) to nitrite (NO2), a process that builds on existing research aimed to reduce nitrite to nitric oxide (NO), nitrous oxygen (N2O) and finally nitrogen gas (N2).

“This nitrate problem is beyond what one team can do,” Harper said.

A Hutchinson education

Harper said his education at Hutchinson High School, particularly in the International Baccalaureate program, gave him the skills to be part of the team as a second-year college student .

“I value my Hutch High education to a very high degree,” Harper said. {span}Harper {/span}said John Brown’s earth science class as a high school freshman helped ignite his interest in science, thanks to the fast pace and intensity.

“I really appreciated Mr. Brown’s passion,” Harper said. “He told some phenomenal stories,” which made the science discussed relatable.

Harper also credited calculus teacher Rusty Hilst, biology teachers Larry Ballard and Brian McCandless and business/technology teacher Janie Patterson as important influences.

Harper
Harper

The credentials he received by completing the International Baccalaureate program helped him get a spot on the iGEM team. The skills he learned in the program helped him succeed as a team member, he said.

“The education I received at HHS has really allowed me to hit the ground running in college,” Harper said.

Research project

The six-member team’s first step in the competition was to identify a real-world problem that could potentially be addressed with synthetic biology.

“This is simplifying things, but you can imagine a cell as a computer and the cell’s DNA as software,” Harper said. “Specific genes can be added to the cell’s software – DNA – and then the DNA can be inserted into the cell. The cell then expresses those added genes. The genes added are intentionally chosen to aid in addressing an identified real-world problem.”

The Nebraska team chose nitrate reduction because , it’s a problem that partly originates through Midwest agricultural practices, Harper said.

Farm fertilizer runoff eventually ends up in the Gulf of Mexico, where it effectively fertilizes algae. This causes algae to grow out of control, Harper said.

When those large quantities of algae die, they are decomposed by bacteria, a process that consumes enormous amounts of oxygen dissolved in the water. Without oxygen in the water, fish suffocate and die off in huge numbers.

The Nebraska team’s project involved emphasizing a gene in bacteria that causes them to reduce nitrate (NO3) into nitrite (NO2). In order to prevent a side effect of the bacteria then growing out of control, the team worked on a “kill switch” that would cause the bacteria to die off if nitrate falls below a certain level.

The team presented its project at the iGEM competition Oct. 26-31 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A number of teams were awarded the top recognition, a gold award. The Nebraska team received the award just below that, a silver award, which Harper was proud of, since it was the team’s first year.

He said he thought having more lab results would have improved their chances of getting a gold award, as would having other teams repeat the experiments, getting similar results.

Harper said he thought the team was capable of earning gold in the 2017 competition. He hopes to be part of the team again, if other research commitments leave enough time.

Advice for students

Harper said high school students with an interest in science should get involved sooner rather than later. He said participating in research is a great way to build knowledge and skills.

He also cautioned against thinking science already has it all solved. It doesn’t, and it isn’t too late for current high school students to become scientists who make world-changing discoveries.

Harper is a dual-major student in computer science and mathematics with a minor in biology at Nebraska. He is in his second year at Nebraska but has enough college credit he is officially a junior.

In addition to his studies and the iGEM research project, Harper is the president of the Computer Science and Engineers Ambassadors.

 

Photo: University of Nebraska student and Hutchinson native Colton Harper, left, works on an experiment during a research project. Harper credits the education he got at Hutchinson
High School for preparing him to hit the ground running with research at college.

View original article at: Former Salthawk credits Hutch High for success in algae research, award

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