by Meryl, Coastal Studies for Girls
On November 30, our final guest speaker of the semester, Anne Madden, gave a talk on her research involving microbes in paper wasp nests. Anne Madden, a graduate research student at Tufts University in Massachusetts, studies the microbes in wasp nests.
Anne Madden was inspired to this field of study by the leafcutter ants in Costa Rica. The leafcutter ants don’t actually eat the leaves that they harvest; rather they feed the leaf fragments to fungi that they keep in their gigantic nests. Then the gardener ants harvest their crop for food. In fact, a lot of insects and fungi have mutualistic relationships.
All of the wasps’ nests used in Anne’s experiment were from the Tufts campus. To identify the microbes in the nest, she first had to remove all of the wasps from the nest using tweezers. Then, she ground up the nest and made a “wasp nest slushie” that she spread into petri dishes. Next, Anne sorted the fungi and microbe colonies, and gave each type its own dish.
In order to identify microbes and fungi, scientists have assembled a database of all of the known fungi and microbe species’ DNA. When Anne put some of her fungi into the database, no matches came up. Anne had discovered a new species!
The new species is fluffy and white, and grows rapidly. Anne and her team named it Mucor nidicola. Anne didn’t get to name the genus, although it means ‘mold’. The word nidicola means 'living in another’s nest'.Anne described the process that a scientist goes through when they are trying to establish a new species. A species is a group of individuals that have similar characteristics and can breed successfully. Anne had to provide irrefutable evidence that her specimens were, in fact, a separate species. She wrote up her research, and sent it to other scientists who gave their opinions on her results. And they agreed! Anne had discovered a new species of fungus.
At the end of the talk, Anne described her winding path to a career biology. It was reassuring to learn that to be a scientist, you don’t have to know exactly what you want to do the moment you enter college. Many of us are interested in science -- especially after having such an amazing semester at CSG -- but we don’t necessarily know for sure, and it was comforting to hear that we don’t need to know right now.
Coastal Studies for Girls is the country’s only residential science and leadership semester school for 10th grade girls. CSG is dedicated to girls who have a love for learning and discovery, an adventurous spirit, and a desire to challenge themselves.