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Students in Polk County Known as ‘Magnolia Detectives’

SUBMITTED BY JSHAMP ON TUE, 2012-05-22 16:36

They’re actually rather puny and unimpressive to look at.

These Sweetbay magnolia trees scattered around the woods of Western North Carolina’s Polk County are not like the robust ornamentals with dark waxy leaves that drop big white flowers onto manicured lawns throughout the Southeast.

Jennifer Allsbrook

But these ho-hum Polk County magnolia misfits are changing the life of high school biology teacher Jennifer Allsbrook – and helping her students discover the joys of detective work using the tools of biotechnology.

The problem is, this isolated stand of scrubby specimens doesn’t belong in the mountains. So Allsbrook and her students have embarked on what has become known as the Magnolia Detectives project, to see what they can learn about these trees’ origins and what it all might mean scientifically.

The project has already brought Allsbrook two grants from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, providing a total of $16,000 to help her make biotech locally relevant to her students.

She has also landed grants from ING and Toshiba foundations to help equip her lab and propel the research. And she has established important collaborations with other scientists in the process.


Putting more tech into the bio

Allsbrook, who holds a B.S. from Appalachian State University and a Master of Life Science degree from the University of Maryland, said her tree-tracking exploits started a couple of years ago when she was looking for a way to incorporate more biotechnology into her teaching.

“I wanted to find a project that would let me set up a biotech lab where we could do DNA extraction, gene sequencing, things like that,” she said. “But I needed outside support to help fund it. And I knew writing grants for general purposes wouldn’t work.”

John Vining, Rebecca Allsbrook collect magnolia leaves in N.C. forest  

The door to the “detective agency” was opened when Allsbrook discussed her biotech aspirations with Polk County Cooperative Extension Agent John Vining. He suggested Allsbrook study why these magnolias were growing nearby, well outside their normal range.

Voila! The Magnolia Detective concept was born when Allsbrook confirmed Vining’s quandary with one of the world’s top magnolia experts, South Carolinian Richard Figlar, who had helped assemble a distribution map for these Magnolia virginianas, also known as laurel, sweetbay, swamp bay or swamp magnolias.

The map confirmed that the normal range of that species is coastal, stretching much of the way up the East Coast – but not as far inland as Polk County. “In North Carolina there’s no place that has such a westerly population of magnolias,” said Allsbrook. “It’s an isolated out-population, which is why it’s so weird – and so interesting.”

Allsbrook then arranged for two grant-funded mentoring visits with Andrea Wolfe, Ph.D., a scientist at theOhio State University, who agreed to work with Allsbrook in applying the most appropriate genetic analyses to search the “family tree” of the Polk County magnolias and see if they have relatives in South Carolina and other places in the Southeast.

Identifying individuals in a population

“She uses a technique called ISSR DNA fingerprinting,” said Allsbrook. “I’d never heard of that before. But it’s amazing. It’s so exacting you can identify individuals within a population. Fortunately, that first Biotechnology Center grant allowed me to learn from her.”

Allsbrook returned to the Columbus, Ohio, campus during the summer of 2011 to fine-tune the research project with Wolfe, and has now brought Wolfe to North Carolina for a scientific exchange with Allsbrook’s students and others interested in the project.

Allsbrook has been busy collecting leaves and numbering specific trees, so she and the students can compare DNA fingerprints within the population. That exposes them to the relatively recent specialty dubbed phylogeography – the study of the historical processes that may be responsible for the contemporary geographic distributions of individuals.

Expanding the study from Pennsylvania to Cuba

“The project has been evolving as I go,” she said. “Dr. Wolfe wants to expand it and do a phylogeographic study testing 15 to 25 populations throughout the North American range, stretching from Pennsylvania and Virginia to West Virginia through South Carolina and Georgia all way down to Florida and Louisiana, and even to a population recently discovered in Cuba. She wants each population to have as many as 40 specimens that we can work on.”

Did Native Americans carry these trees’ ancestors into the mountains centuries ago for some medicinal use? Did birds or animals somehow drag them in? It’s too soon to tell.

But an enterprising biology teacher in the North Carolina mountains and her enthusiastic students are hot on the case.