Scientists at Dakota State University want to know exactly what is in a jar of preserved pumpkin sealed in 1920 and left on a shelf for nearly a century. They already know that the pumpkin in the jar was grown in Moody County near Flandreau. They also know about the type of jar, and that the person who canned the pumpkin was skilled enough to take second place at the county fair. They know that the jar was kept for years in the Moody County Museum. What they know interests them but what they don't know fascinates them. If they were to open the jar and look inside, what kinds of microbes might they find? What exactly is in the tiny amount gases and other chemicals in the jar?
Just as importantly, what's missing? What's absent in a sample of organic matter closed off from 96 years of environmental change in the outside world? The only way to find out is to open the jar. It's not as simple as it sounds - but opening the jar and understanding the exact nature of its contents could potentially lead to some profound discoveries.
Dr. Patrick Videau is a microbiologist and Dakota State University professor. He'll be looking closely at what he calls the microbial community inside the jar. He thinks it's possible that something in that nasty-looking, 96-year old goo could lead to the development of new medicines. A major advance in cancer treatment came from similar research done years ago on a less promising sample of decaying organic material, so why not hope for another breakthrough?
Dr. Michael Gaylor is a chemist and Chair of the DSU Chemistry Department. Gaylor has a background in environmental chemistry and the expertise to compare current data to historical records. In terms of the Pumpkin Project, he wants to look for differences between what was in the environment in 1920 and what can be measured now.
World War II and the advent of the nuclear age provide Gaylor with a distinct marker. Access to a pristine sample of the environment as it was in 1920 provides Gaylor with a unique opportunity to perhaps record baseline data about the prevalence of human-made chemicals at the dawn of an era of chemical throwdown in both agriculture and industry. In particular, Gaylor wants to look for traces of DDT, an effective but problematic insectide. He's also interested in a 1920s sample of PCBs, carcinogenic chemicals so widely used since the end of World War II that traces of it can now be found in soil and water worldwide.
The project's funding goal has been reached. Read more in this DSU News Release.
SDPB will be following the progress of the DSU Pumpkin Project research. Look for updates on the following:
--The involvement of undergraduates at Dakota State University and the opportunities the project presents to student researchers.
--The need for additional samples of old canned foods and other kinds of preserves. (You can help and we'll tell you how in upcoming posts!)
--The preliminary and necessary ramp-up of the project. The opening of the jar and the analysis of its contents will require an established and very rigorous series of procedures. It will take time. The students involved in the project will need to learn these procedures before attempting the one-time-only job of opening the 1920 jar.
--The opening of the 1920 jar. This will be a highly-controlled bit of lab work. Researchers don't know what they are going to find and the possibility exists that potentially dangerous microbes may be found. If that happens, the project could come to an abrupt end. (The pumpkin was preserved shortly after the deadly 1918 flu epidemic. Other bacteria, like those responsible for tuberculosis and anthrax, were more prevalent in the 1920 environment than they are today.)
--SDPB will summarize the results of the study.
--Listen to an SDPB Radio interview with Drs. Videau and Gaylor and some of the grad students involved with the DSU Pumpkin Project. "Innovations" on Dakota Midday, Friday, December 9, noon CT, 11:00am MT.