Buena Vista University

Students Research Environmental Impact of Bt Corn

Oct. 9, 2012

For senior biology and environmental science majors Jennifer Heim of Watertown, S.D. and John Killpack of Logan, two years of research culminated in an abstract acceptance for presentation at a regional conference.

The students were invited to share their findings at the North Central Chapter (NCC) Conference of the International Society of Wetland Scientists (SWS) in Chesterton, Ind., in late September. Jennifer also earned a competitive travel grant to attend the conference and present their project, entitled, “Impact of Bt Corn Leaf Detritus on Aquatic Macroinvertebrates.”

Jennifer developed the proposal for the project during the spring semester of her sophomore year. She chose the topic because she recognized its significance to agriculture and the health of freshwater systems. 

“I’ve always been curious about anthropogenic effects on ecosystems, and when told to select a topic that I would be working on for three years, I knew I wanted to find something interesting that was currently impacting the environment and humans,” says Jennifer. “I browsed current science journal articles and happened across one about the impact of Bt corn detritus on macroinvertebrate communities. I had heard of Bt corn before seeing that article, but didn’t know much about it.  After I read the article, I realized that this was something that could have serious impacts on freshwater systems near agricultural land.”

Bt corn has been genetically altered to express the bacterial Bt toxin, which is poisonous to insect pests. In biology, detritus is non-living particulate organic material which can include the bodies or fragments of dead organisms. Aquatic macroinvertebrates are found in lakes, streams, ponds, marshes and puddles and help maintain the health of the water ecosystem by breaking down leaf detritus and other organic matter to perpetuate the cycling of nutrients and energy through the system.

John grew up on a farm and was relatively familiar with Bt corn and its effects on the environment. He had also previously completed an internship with the Missouri River Basin that gave him greater knowledge about macroinvertebrates and water quality. He was intrigued enough to get involved with Jennifer’s project.

“When I heard that Jennifer was basing her project in these areas, I decided to join her and assist in the research project,” John says. “Our hypothesis was that the presence of Bt corn leaves as a food source for aquatic macroinvertebrates will show negative environmental effects in lab and field testing when compared to non-Bt corn leaves. In our research, we found negative survivability effects on tricopteran macroinvertebrates when comparing results from Bt corn leaves verses non-Bt-corn leaves.”

The research project allowed John to obtain experience in a field-based project in order to assist in his decision to pursue ecological research or a human health direction after he graduates from BVU in the spring.

Beyond the results of the research, Jennifer also learned about enduring the challenges and trials of her project.

“One of the most important things I’ve learned is patience and acceptance that not everything is going to work out the way you want it to on your first try,” Jennifer says. “This was research, not a controlled lab exercise. With that, you’re going to have to go through a lot of trial and error for things to work, and even then you cannot always expect to get the results you want to see.”

Presenting at the conference also helped Jennifer prepare for a future beyond BVU. She was able to connect with graduate students and professors and discuss research techniques and directions. She is interested in pursuing a program in aquatic ecology.

“It was great to see students farther along in school than I and still excited about school and what they were working on,” says Jennifer.

According to Dr. Melinda Coogan, assistant professor of biology, Jennifer and John’s abstract was selected based on the scientific quality and novelty of their research project, as well as the writing quality of the abstract and the presence of statistically significant data with appropriate conclusions.

“I am very proud of their accomplishments!” says Coogan. “Jennifer and John were also selected among several applicants during spring, 2012, to conduct the summer, 2012, USDA Mississippi River Basin Initiative (MRBI) assessments along Outlet Creek.  When their weekly MRBI responsibilities were completed, they turned their attention to their biology research project, which I feel gave them a competitive edge with their NCC abstract submission. Jennifer and John are examples of our many dedicated BVU biology students who are passionate about learning new assessment methods and how to critically analyze results.”

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