By Marty Price, Charlotte Observer
Jessica Alley, a part-time research technician at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, has wanted to hike the entire Appalachian Trail since she was in middle school, and she finally decided that 2015 would be the year.
Having earned her master’s degree in exercise science at Appalachian State University in the spring of 2014, Alley interned at the N.C State University Plants for Human Health Institute at the Research Campus, which led to being hired by Slavko Komarnytsky, an assistant professor of pharmacogenomics, in the fall.
During the interview for the position, she told Komarnytsky about her plans to hike the trail, and he loved the idea. In addition to the lab work she would do for him on the campus, he saw the chance for her to do field work that could lead to a discovery.
Using mobile discovery kits, she could take samples of flora along the trail to help him find plants with antibiotic properties. These kits were already being distributed, by invitation, to schools across the state to help identify plants with properties that may encourage further research.
A mobile discovery kit consists of a plate with 24 wells for the samples, some agar powder to make a gelatin to suspend the samples, two pipettes and a tube for the tester’s saliva, which provides the bacteria needed for the experiment.
For each kit, the tester takes a picture of each specimen, records the well location, mixes water with the agar powder and pours the solution into each well, covering the samples. Once the agar gel solidifies over the samples, the tester adds his or her saliva and lets them incubate for 24-36 hours.
After the incubation period, the tester takes a picture of the plate and sends it to the lab through its website. The picture shows little white dots of bacteria on the surface of the wells, unless the sample has antibacterial properties.
If a well appears clear, with no white dots of bacteria, then it is considered a “hit,” which indicates that sample may have antibacterial properties and warrants further research.
Alley started working in the lab in the fall of 2014 and left to hike the trail early this year, getting paid for the time she spent testing. She reached the end of the trail, in Maine, in July.
She began her hike in the snow on Feb. 27 as she passed Springer Mountain in Georgia. She said the hardest part, at first, was putting the samples into the wells when her hands were cold. “I tried to pick items that looked interesting, but it was hard because there weren’t a lot of choices in February,” she said.
“It became easier as I moved North and plants came back to life in the spring,” Alley said. The logistics of incubation, which required the plate to be upright so it would not spill, while maintaining a temperature close to that of the human body, were a constant challenge.
Alley placed the plate in a zip-lock bag, strapped a hand warmer on top and slept with it at her feet to achieve the proper temperature at night. The fermenting bacteria smelled rather unpleasant a times, and she was careful to keep her feet clear of the kit.
“I didn’t want to spill it in my expensive sleeping bag. It smells terrible,” she said. Alley said she would throw away the kits a soon as possible after recording the results with her camera, but there were long walks between trash cans on the trail.
Over the course of her hike, Alley took 250 samples, recording at least seven hits. That data was given to Komarnytsky, who said those specimens will be studied during the next phase of research this fall.
“The first step is discovery, all we get back (from the kits) is a report that this sample has activity. The next step will be to start a research project on what the activity is, what the chemical is and if it can be beneficial to man,” Komarnytsky said.
Komarnytsky wants anyone who is interested to help. “Try to go to remote areas for your specimens, things that are common have already been tested, we are looking for unique plants,” he said.
He also urges the testers to talk with their ancestors about old home remedies that included plants. “This is a way to test some of the ethnic knowledge they may possess that is been overlooked and it encourages interaction between the generations on the road to discovery,” said Komarnytsky.
Alley, meanwhile, is moving on to new adventures. This fall, she will start in the kinesiology doctoral program at Iowa State.