Memorial Park Middle School’s GMO Scientists team finished tops in Indiana and in the Top 20 nationally among sixth-grade teams in the eCYBERMISSION competition.
They also learned more than they imagined about genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
“We didn’t even know what the term GMO meant,” team member Aubrey Gephart, 12, said.
Aubrey and team members Nick Chapman, Rey Valui and Simon Twiss, all age 12, set out to investigate whether GMO foods are harmful or not.
They started by meeting July 31 with Professor Teresa Beam, biology department chairwoman at the University of Saint Francis. Beam suggested some options for how to test the impact of GMO foods.
She also let the students use a lab at Saint Francis to conduct their research.
Students traveled to the lab every Tuesday and often on Fridays after school for three or four months to complete their research, said Larry Lesh, a retired Memorial Park science teacher who coaches the team.
Students did two types of experiments:
In one, they obtained 40 samples of foods containing corn, such as cereal and corn chips, as well as a few ears of corn. Then they used a mortar and pestle to grind up the foods so they could test for traces of GMO DNA, Nick said.
They found GMO DNA in only one sample — an ear of corn that was grown from GMO seed, he said.
“They were so processed, we couldn’t really I.D. DNA,” Aubrey said.
In the second set of experiments, the team tested whether GMO cornmeal would be harmful as food for fruit flies.
They first put male and female fruit flies together in clear, glass jars and practiced counting them.
Then they placed a different variety of cornmeal, including a few made from GMO corn, into jars with adult male and female fruit flies. The cornmeal served as food for the fruit fly larvae.
To prevent bias, the students didn’t know which cornmeal was made from GMO corn, they said.
Once a week, they counted the number of fruit flies and larvae in each jar to see what type of cornmeal seemed to produce the most flies and larvae, they said.
“The GMO food did better in two of the three tests,” Simon said.
The result surprised them.
“We were all very biased against GMOs before the tests,” he said.
Their state championship in the eCYBERMISSION sixth-grade competition included a U.S. savings bond that will grow in value from $500 to $1,000 over 20 years. Their project also advanced to the 11-state regional competition, where they finished in the top four. They also finished in the Top 20 nationally among 1,041 sixth-grade projects, Lesh said.
Team members emerged from the project with varied opinions about GMOs.
“I don’t think GMO food is that harmful,” Simon said. “They (people) are just nervous because they think it is bad.”
Nick believes GMO plants are good. However, the plants’ resistance to pesticides means growers can spray more chemicals on them, he noted.
“I think that is the harm to us,” he added.
Team members encouraged people to do their own investigating.
“You can have your own opinion, but this is what we found,” Rey said.