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Two Jackson students win top awards at regional science fair

Jackson High School students Eli Jones and Mallorie Coffee won top awards at the 64th Annual Southeast Missouri Regional Science Fair on March 10 at the Show Me Center in Cape Girardeau.

Jones and Coffee, along with Hannah Davis from Hayti High School, won the right to compete at the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), which was scheduled for May 15-20 in Anaheim, CA.

The international fair has since been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the students are still considered ISEF finalists and alums of the Society for Science and the Public.

Jones’ project consists of creating a total synthesis of Lindbergin E, a natural plant extract that has been shown to combat the tropical disease Leishmaniasis. Jones said the disease is deadly, but is currently under researched because it mostly affects poorer people in developing countries.

“If you are trying to make a drug cheaper for people in developing countries, you don’t want to extract it from a rare fern every time you want to give someone a treatment option,” Jones explained. “You need to find the most cost-effective way to make that drug, and the way you usually do that is you have to develop a synthetic route to making that drug.”

Jones formed a 10-step way of creating the synthetic version, starting with a common molecule and doing various chemical reactions to add to the molecule in order to make it an exact match of the natural product.

“There’s a lot of chemistry that goes behind adding these gradual parts to my molecule until I can get something that is really complex.” Jones said. “There can be dozens of reactions you can do that with; however, there are only one or two reactions that are going to be the most efficient.“

Jones said he spent a lot of his time on the project figuring out how to create the synthesis in as few steps as possible, making it more likely that the synthesis drug could be produced cheaply and be readily available. “I had over five different plans that I completely scrapped when I found a more efficient way,” Jones said.

Coffee’s project found a way to stop bacteria from spreading without the use of antibiotics. Coffee said her project began by researching how bacteria work and communicate with each other.   

“What I found out is that bacteria actually communicate though something called quorum sensing,” Coffee said. In that process, the bacteria “talk” to each other and count how big they are.

“When they feel like they have enough of them and enough power to overcome the massive human host, they release this ‘go’ signal,” Coffee explained. “The go signal is a positive chemical molecule and once they receive the ‘go’ signal, they start to release their toxins and that’s when you start to feel sick.”

Coffee hypothesized that if you could jam the signal somehow, the bacteria would not be able to grow, release toxins or be harmful to humans. She focused on the bacterial infection strep throat (Streptococcus Pyogenes) and tried to see if a negative chemical molecule would be able to neutralize the communication.

One of the two chemicals she tried in the experiment, N-Hexanoyl-L-homoserine lactone, inhibited the growth of the bacteria by counteracting the communication between the bacteria colonies.

“This really presents the possibility of coexisting with bacteria instead of defeating them with antibiotics,” Coffee said. She added that without dependence on antibiotics, antibiotic-resistant bacteria would no longer be an issue.

Over 700 students participated at the regional science fair, growing by almost 100 students from last year’s competition. Dr. Chelsea Grigery, the fair’s director said it was the largest event in the regional fair’s 64-year history.

Because of this growth, southeast Missouri was ableto give the top three high school projects the ISEF award. Last year, only two projects were given that honor — including one from Jones and fellow Jackson student Hunter Rees.

Jones said he and Rees were the only JHS project that attended the fair last year, and it was a goal of his to bring more students from Jackson this year. Jones helped create a science club and the Science National Honors Society at the high school to encourage students to do their own scientific research.

“We want to help them to get started on actual scientific research, because in AP science classes you are just learning about this stuff,” Jones said. “You don’t actually get to do your own research.”

Coffee, who is treasurer of SNHS, said the students in the club started working on their projects in August. This year, Jackson sent 19 projects to the fair, many of which won awards. “It’s really created a community within the school and that’s a really cool experience,” Coffee said.

Both Jones and Coffee said they hope to continue work on their projects. Jones said he is working on creating the product based on his plan. After that is completed, the synthesis will need to be tested to see how effective the product is against the disease. Jones added that the drug might need to be modified at that point to make it more effective.

Coffee said she hopes to see the affects of the negative chemical in humans and figure out what quantities are needed to prevent communication. She also wants to find what chemicals could be used to stop communication in other pathogenic bacteria.

Both projects would need other scientists and research capabilities to conduct human trials, but Coffee and Jones said they will continue to work to see their projects make a difference.

“I want this to be applicable,” Coffee said. “I want it to be something that the world can benefit from in everyday life.”

More results from the Southeast Missouri Regional Science Fair can be found in a related story in this week’s paper.

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past four years. He can be reached at cbjedit@socket.net.

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