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HBA Students Help Sequence and Name a New Bacteria
Ryan Su

Hawaii Baptist Academy (HBA) students had the opportunity to learn more about the unique microbial biodiversity within Hawaiʻi Island’s lava caves.  The project stems back to the spring of 2020, when HBA hosted ʻIolani School’s ʻĀina-Informatics Network (AIN) in collaboration with University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

AIN taught students how to use state-of-the-art technology to conduct genomic sequencing using DNA isolated from bacteria cultured by Dr. Rebecca Prescott (UH and NASA) and Dr. Stuart Donachie (UH) from Kaumana Cave on Hawaiʻi Island.  The DNA the students had the opportunity to help sequence back in 2020 has now been determined to be an entirely new bacterium to science.

“At the time, I didn’t understand the enormity and scope of what we were doing.  It was my freshman year at HBA when we learned how to sequence the DNA and we had the chance to learn about micro-pipetting technology and I remember placing some DNA samples into a centrifuge,” recalls Katie Chen who is now a HBA Senior.

“Shortly after this sequencing workshop, the pandemic put a pause on this project,” said Risha Mishima, HBA Biology Teacher.  “It’s amazing to find out a few years later that our students sequenced something never seen before and something entirely new to science.”

In November of 2022, the collaborative academic team reconvened in the same HBA science classroom to let the students know more about the discovery and presented them with the privilege of naming the new species.  The learning opportunities continued as some of the HBA students involved in the original genome project became chairs of the naming committee together with members of HBA’s Pre-Med Club. 

NASA Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Rebecca Prescott, and AIN shared more details about the new organism’s genus, species, color, and details about the Hawaiʻi Island cave in which it was collected.  The students said they used that information to propose the name Paraflavitalea speifideiaquila, which combines the Latin words for "hope" (spes), "faith" (fides), and "eagle" (aquila; HBA's mascot).

“I learned that there are a lot of things that go into coming up with this scientific name, a name that will stick around for longer than we will be around,” explained Rachel Cheung, HBA Senior and Vice President of HBA’s Pre-Med Club (and a student who was also involved in the original genome project).  “We wanted to choose a name that represented our group of students here at HBA,” she smiled.

“In my day, we were naming our pet goldfish in science class, not novel species!” joked Claire Mitchell, HBA’s Science Department Chair.  “Now, our HBA students have the chance to impact not just Hawaii, but beyond.  Because this is part of NASA’s ARES Project, the impacts will be far reaching.  For our students to have this opportunity is a science teacher’s dream come true.”

The next step in this process is for the name to be proposed to the International Committee on Systematics of Prokaryotes (ICSP) for approval.

HBA students would like to again mahalo all the academic partners and organizations that made this opportunity possible.  The research was funded by NASA Exobiology grant (80NSSC18K1064), NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Biology (grant No. 1711856), U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Biological and Environmental Research Division (award number LANLF59T),‘Iolani School, and Edward E. Ford Foundation for support of the ‘Āina-Informatics Network.