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Preserved pumpkin as a scientific time capsule? Fungal and chemical analysis of pumpkin preserve from 1920

Backed by Nina Videau, Steve Orwig, Lizbeth Videau, Nan Keder, Colleen Juntunen, Xzayana Henderson, Michelle McAnnally Godfrey, Ginger Gaylor, Jeffrey Headd, Mostafa Haque, and 86 other backers
Dakota State University
Madison, South Dakota
BiologyChemistry
DOI: 10.18258/7922
Grant: Fungi
$6,100
Raised
101%
Funded on 11/26/16
Successfully Funded
  • $6,100
    pledged
  • 101%
    funded
  • Funded
    on 11/26/16

About This Project

In early September of 1920, at a local fair in Flandreau SD, a jar of preserved pumpkin was awarded the auspicious title of Second in Show. Despite its delectable qualities, the jar was sealed, stored, and ultimately forgotten. It was later donated to the Moody County Historical Society Museum for public display. We believe this sample represents an unprecedented opportunity to study the microbiological and chemical environment of the pre-industrial Great Plains.

Ask the Scientists

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What is the context of this research?

The preserved pumpkin represents multiple avenues of inquiry to learn more about those days of yore on the windswept Dakota plains, including fungal analysis, air quality analysis, and isotopic analysis. Chemical and isotopic analyses of the pumpkin and the air trapped in the vessel will provide insight into the prevailing environmental conditions of that simpler time, especially regarding the composition of the Great Plains atmosphere prior to heavy industrialization. Fungi can evolve very quickly, sometimes altering their genomes noticeably in months or years. Identifying, and possibly even growing, the fungi sealed within the jar of pumpkin allows us to examine what changes have occurred over the last century by comparing them to present-day fungi.

What is the significance of this project?

This is very likely to be the only project of its kind. It is quite rare that such a well-preserved jar of canned fruit is made available for scientific assessment. Though measures of food and air quality were certainly undertaken in the early 1900s, the instrumentation was crude and the analyses rudimentary. Using modern technologies, we will be able to obtain unprecedented data on chemical compositions of foodstuffs and the atmosphere before the Great Depression. Analysis of the fungal diversity, determined based on the DNA remaining in the jar, provides a valuable comparison to a time before heavily industrialized farming was commonplace. This preserved pumpkin represents a truly extraordinary and novel piece of historical conservation science.

What are the goals of the project?

We will analyze the fungal content of the pumpkin via DNA sequencing and laboratory cultivation. Additional investigations into the stable isotope composition of the preserved pumpkin will provide insights into the effects of cultivation, storage, and cooking of the food, as well as the soil conditions of the time. We will also characterize the nutritional composition of the preserved pumpkin relative to present-day Great Plains pumpkins. We will use gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to create a chemical fingerprint of the sample. This will then be compared to GC-MS fingerprints of contemporary Great Plains air samples to assess how the fingerprint has changed over the intervening 96 years.

Budget

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Your donations will directly fund the costs of items and services involved in the fungal and chemical assessments of the preserved pumpkin. Collection of air and pumpkin samples from the jar require a specially designed collection bag that must be handled in a specialized glove box with an inert atmosphere. This will ensure nothing from the surroundings contaminates the preserved sample. Small samples of the pumpkin will be sent to the University of California Davis Stable Isotope Facility for stable isotope testing. Analysis of the fungi requires kits for DNA extraction and amplification of the 18S rRNA genomic regions, so chosen because they are the most widely used nucleic acid sequences in fungal identification. Once amplified, the DNA will be sequenced using a high-throughput PacBio sequencer at the University of Washington core facility. Your cumulative donations will facilitate a truly novel study of a piece of American history!

Endorsed by

What a wonderful time capsule! So many chemical and biological stories to be told. I was on Mike's dissertation committee and was impressed by the wide view he took on his research. Glad to know that in a world of increasingly myopic specialization, he and his students are still looking to integrate multiple fields. I hope an analysis of the sugars and pigments are being considered!
As a mycologist I am very interested to see the outcome of this experiment. Microbes, especially fungi, are highly mutable and adaptable, and in this age of industrialization and technology, they have been subjected to metal and chemical toxins and mutagens that influence adaptation and evolution as an observable genetic effect. The investigators bring a comprehensive blend of chemical and microbiological backgrounds to the project that are expected to generate insightful outcomes.
This project represents an interesting opportunity to examine a biological snapshot of the 1920s environment; a period that witnessed an economic and industrial boom following WWI and preceding the Great Depression and the world-changing events of the "atomic age" of humankind. The proposed analysis of this sample will contribute to the understand of how humans have influenced our environment and, in turn, any response elicited by the microorganisms that surround us.
I have had the honor of working with Patrick Videau at the University of Hawaii and can vouch for his expertise, and am extremely impressed with his creative and intelligent approach to science. This project will truly be one of a kind and is therefore of critical importance. This research utilizes novel techniques that will not only lead to unprecedented data on microbial communities of the early 1900s, but also enlighten us on the prevailing environmental conditions before the Great Depression.

Meet the Team

Hope Juntunen
Hope Juntunen
Undergraduate & General Beadle Honors Program Scholar

Affiliates

College of Arts and Sciences, Dakota State University
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Vaille Swenson
Vaille Swenson
Undergraduate

Affiliates

College of Arts and Science, Dakota State University
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Katie Mackoy
Katie Mackoy
Undergraduate

Affiliates

College of Arts and Science, Dakota State University
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Lucas Leinen
Lucas Leinen
Undergraduate

Affiliates

College of Arts and Sciences, Dakota State University
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Patrick Videau
Patrick Videau
Assistant Professor of Microbiology

Affiliates

College of Arts and Science, Dakota State University
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Michael Gaylor
Michael Gaylor
Assistant Professor of Chemistry

Affiliates

College of Arts and Sciences, Dakota State University
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Hope Juntunen

I was born and raised in the tiny farming town of Hayti, South Dakota (population 381), and I am a first generation junior General Beadle Honors Program Scholar pursuing a double major in Physical Science (with a concentration in Chemistry) and Biology for Information Systems at Dakota State University. I have marveled at and questioned the natural world since I was a young girl. As I got older, I found that the only way I could obtain truly satisfying answers to my endless questions about how the world worked was through the formal study of science. And the more I learned, the more questions I had. So, I eventually concluded that a career in science was probably the right path for me. I am now trying to take my passions for scientific understanding to new heights by pursuing a dual Honors degree program, and immersing myself as deeply as I can in highly interdisciplinary scientific research at DSU. To further prepare myself for a PhD program, I spent this past summer working as an REU scholar at the Center for Chemical Evolution at The Georgia Institute of Technology, where I worked on cutting edge problems in prebiotic and pharmaceutical chemistry. My REU experience was so stimulating and gratifying that Georgia Tech now tops my list of prospective PhD programs. I will also give my first research paper at an international conference next month when I present some of my work at the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) World Congress/Annual North America Meeting in Orlando, Florida.

Vaille Swenson

I was born and raised in the mountains of Colorado, and I am currently a third year student pursuing a BS degree in Biology for Information Systems at Dakota State University. To satisfy my fascination with microbial life, I pursued my scientific interests from a very young age. I actually read textbooks for enjoyment and I spent my first real paycheck on a microscope. My musical abilities also seemed to blossom right alongside my investigative interests and pursuits; I have since performed with a number of concert symphonies and bands playing the oboe, flute, harp, and english horn. I have also amassed three years of computer programming experience in multiple languages since coming to DSU. I feel like my unique combination of ingrained curiosity and education make make me uniquely prepared to tackle this exciting research project. It is my hope that the experience and positive results from this project will help me achieve my ultimate goal of undertaking graduate studies in marine biology or microbiology.

Katie Mackoy

At a young age, my father, a high school biology teacher, gave lectures to my siblings and me on all things scientific. Despite the rest of the kids’ rejection, he pressed on and instilled a love of science and desire to learn within me. Therefore, a pursuit of this field is a natural progression. In service of this goal, I am currently a freshman Biology major at Dakota State University. Though my exact direction in science remains to be decided, I hope to bring my experience and enthusiasm to this fascinating project and search for something entirely novel. When I’m not working in the microbiology lab, I press flowers, read short stories, and engage in massively multiple online role-playing games (MMORPGs). Maybe someday, I’ll actually get to taste the pumpkin!

Lucas Leinen

I was born and raised in South Dakota and I am a first generation senior majoring in Physical Science (with a concentration in Chemistry) at Dakota State University. I have been passionate about anything and everything relating to scientific discovery since I can remember. My academic studies at DSU are broadly focused in chemistry, and I consider myself super fortunate to be working on such extremely interdisciplinary scientific research projects that address important scientific questions at the frontiers of several fields, including environmental organic, analytical and prebiotic chemistry, and microbiology. After graduation, I plan to pursue a PhD in bioorganic chemistry. As I am also quite eager to expand my cultural horizons, I hope to complete my PhD studies in Europe, with German and Swiss programs topping my list of desired graduate study locales. I am ultimately motivated to bring my passions for scientific investigation to bear on the betterment of the human condition, likely through the synthesis and characterization of powerful new drug molecules for combating humanity’s most devastating diseases.

Patrick Videau

Originally from Rougemont, North Carolina, I received a BA in the biological sciences from Goucher College in 2007 and, after conducting virology research at Johns Hopkins University for a year, returned to school and completed a PhD in Microbiology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2014. My doctoral work investigated the genetic underpinnings of cellular differentiation in the model filamentous cyanobacterium Anabaena sp. strain PCC 7120. As a postdoctoral fellow, I worked at Oregon State University where I developed Anabaena as a heterologous expression system to produce and study medically-relevant cyanobacterial natural products. In 2016, I assumed my new duties as an assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at Dakota State University. My lab currently consists of two undergraduate students who investigate questions at the intersection of cyanobacterial physiology and metabolism, and environmental and natural products chemistry.

ResearchGate Profile

Michael Gaylor

I serve as the entire Chemistry program, and one half of the Physical Science program, here at Dakota State University, where I am solely responsible for delivery of the Chemistry curriculum. I also teach advanced courses in toxicology, ecotoxicology, biogeochemistry, marine science, astrobiology, astrochemistry and chemical evolution. I am Cofounder and research director for Mycobius, a biotech startup focused on antibiotic discovery in extreme toxic environments. My core research interests are broadly focused on the chemistry and ecotoxicology of anthropogenic chemicals in the environment, with special emphasis on environmental fate and effects of persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals. More recent efforts have focused on characterizing the microbial communities and associated natural product chemistries of harsh toxic environments and elucidating the biochemical pathways by which these organisms adapt to and thrive therein, with the practical intent of identifying secondary metabolites exhibiting antibiotic properties. Ever seeking to expand the bounds of scientific inquiry, my students and I are increasingly engaged in addressing significant problems at the forefront of astrobiology and chemical evolution.

ResearchGate Profile

Additional Information

The total fungal content will be assessed by high-throughput sequencing based on selective amplification of fungal DNA. This facilitates the identification of every fungal strain within the sample. We will also assess whether fungi produced specialized spores that helped them survive the preserving process by trying to revive them under controlled laboratory conditions.


Project Backers

  • 113Backers
  • 101%Funded
  • $6,100Total Donations
  • $53.51Average Donation
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