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Teen scientist hits lab to save chestnuts

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/09/13/15/19/WdcNU.Em.138.jpeg|500
    - Courtesy of The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF).
    An American chestnut tree in Jackson County, Tennessee. One of the largest surviving American chestnuts in the south, the Jackson County tree has been marked by blight (lower center). Courtesy of The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF).
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/09/13/15/19/1kSesF.Em.138.jpeg|421
    - Photo courtesy of Jayden Walsh
    Jayden Walsh works in the lab at UNCC to extract DNA from chestnut tree leaves.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/09/13/15/19/18Dgaf.Em.138.jpeg|237
    - Photo courtesy of Jayden Walsh
    Jayden Walsh works in the lab at UNCC to extract DNA from chestnut tree leaves.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/09/13/15/19/IdGsG.Em.138.jpeg|398
    - Courtesy of Great Smoky Mountains National Park Library
    The Family of James and Caroline Shelton pose by a large dead Chestnut Tree in Tremont Falls, Tennessee circa 1920. Courtesy of Great Smoky Mountains National Park Library

Video games and hanging around didn’t have much weekend appeal to Jayden Walsh this past school year. Instead, for six months, he spent his Saturdays at a UNC Charlotte research laboratory figuring out the best way to extract DNA from chestnut tree leaves.

“It was a better use of my Saturdays, instead of sitting at home and doing nothing,” said Jayden, 17.

His work is part of a larger project that students at the School of Biotechnology, Health & Public Administration at Olympic High have been doing for the American Chestnut Foundation with UNC Charlotte. This summer, he acted as a teaching assistant in the program at the school and will continue working at UNCC this September.

The project helps the foundation gather information about how to grow sturdier American chestnut trees, about 4 billion of which were killed in the first half of the 20th century by a fungal blight from the Chinese chestnut, said Doug Gillis, president of the foundation’s Carolinas chapter. He said the American chestnut, which once grew 8-12 feet in diameter and more than 100 feet tall, used to make up about 40 percent of the trees in the Carolinas’ forested areas.

Jayden, who moved to Charlotte from Ocala, Fla., in the summer of 2011, always knew he loved science. He found his niche the next summer, participating in the Olympic High School B-3 Summer Program. Because of his enthusiasm and talent, he was invited to work Saturdays in the lab of Jennifer Weller, a bioinformatics and genomics professor at UNC Charlotte.

“I was really excited,” Jayden said. “I got to work in a professional lab with all this equipment ... It was exhilarating.”

Jayden said he’s not particularly moved by trees – but that he gets to do something besides instructional classroom experiments: “We’re actually doing something for the environment and community, and it’s just amazing.”

Steve Barilovits III, treasurer for the national American Chestnut Foundation, said the students are adding to millions of dollars of research that universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have done to map the chestnuts’ genomes, and that finding helpful markers “is like finding a needle in a haystack.”

But, he said, he believes the DNA analysis the Olympic students are doing very well might be original.

During the school year, Jayden went through different methods of extracting DNA from leaves to find the way to do it most accurately and inexpensively.

Through trial and error, he found that using less chloroform and phenol than students had previously tried was the best way to extract DNA without using other chemicals.

Weller said Jayden’s new method is a big improvement. “The reactions are much more robust,” she said.

She said the work in her lab building structured DNA sequences isn’t easy. “It was very tedious. He was absolutely meticulous.”

Jayden said he hopes the work he and his classmates have done will be enough for the Foundation to use to find an easy cross-breeding solution.

He said he’d like to study bioengineering in the future and someday help people who receive organ transplants.

“I’m very shy and not outgoing, but I can help people from behind the curtain,” Jayden said. “I think it’s unbelievable what we can do with science today.”

Ruebens: 704-358-5294
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