By Claire Walla
It’s hard to think of anything less pleasant-sounding than sooty mold.
And yet, for Pierson High School student Sam Miller, this dry, charcoal-colored bacteria has proven to have numerous positive qualities. For one, it’s allowed Miller to carry on what’s been an annual Pierson High School tradition for seven years running: this month, Miller was named one of 300 Intel Science Talent Search (STS) semi-finalists from across the country.
Miller earned this distinction for his work in identifying anti-bacterial properties in sooty mold, or scorias spongiosa to the scientific community, a fungus that’s found growing on beech trees.
Miller began working on this project in his junior year, as part of Dr. Robert Schumacher’s scientific research class. Typically, research students will work on projects that are, in a sense, a continuation of the work done by previous students. For example, former Pierson student Ailish Bateman had already proven back in 2005 that sooty mold had anti-fungal properties. So Miller tested it for its antibacterial qualities.
“The first step is we soaked it in methanol,” Miller explained. “That basically extracts the organic compounds out of the mold itself. Then, we’ll filter that and run it through chromatography tests.”
That process essentially breaks the compounds further down into smaller materials called fractions.
“I broke it down into 70 different fractions,” Miller said. “Basically, when we got to the pure form, we sent it off to the University of Mississippi [UM] and they ran a series of NMR [Nuclear Magnetic Resonance] tests on it. Then, by analyzing a series of data, we were able to figure out the molecular structure.”
Thanks to teachers Robert Schumacher and his brother Richard Schumacher, who co-teach Pierson’s class on scientific research, Pierson has been able to develop a working relationship with UM. In exchange for the use of UM’s lab equipment, Dr. Rob Schu (as he’s more commonly known) said Pierson is expected to share its findings with the school, which will conduct further testing on the compound.
And now that Pierson students have identified two very important chemical compounds in the bacteria — one anti-fungal, the other anti-bacterial — Dr. Schumacher said the school is ready to hand its sooty mold findings over to UM so that the university can patent the information and begin further testing.
According to Miller, “It could go through a series of drug testing, which would take an enormous amount of time.” But, should the compound successfully work to combat certain diseases, “It could become an antibiotic medicine.”
Dr. Schumacher explained that the anti-fungal compounds found in sooty mold are some of the most powerful antibiotics to work against an infection called Candida, otherwise known as thrush. He added that this could be particularly important for AIDS patients and people undergoing chemo therapy — who often develop thrush during the course of treatment — because this compound “seems to have a tremendous ability to stave off that type of infection.”
According to Dr. Schumacher, the next step on the pharmaceutical trail would be animal testing, which he said could begin sometime within the next year.
Miller’s work is so important, he added, because researchers need that structure in order to conduct thorough tests on the compound. With the molecular structure all mapped out, Dr. Schumacher said, “Now we know the compound, its structure, its activity… Now someone can take that information — even if it’s already a known compound — and then work to manipulate parts of that molecule to make it more active or more safe.”
He continued to say that Miller’s findings are particularly significant. Miller in fact tested the anti-bacterial compound he discovered against another antibiotic (he believes it was streptomycin) “and it was even more active than that,” Dr. Schumacher said. “Even the compound he isolated, [researchers] have not reported any activity on it. So, Sam’s definitely going to have a scientific journal with his name on it!”
Miller confessed, however, that this is probably not the start of a budding chemical or pharmaceutical career. With early admissions to Cornell University already under his belt, Miller said he planned to study computer science.
“This is probably a one-time thing,” he said of the project. “It was a good experience, and if I had to switch majors, yeah, maybe I would do this. You never know.”