Western, Mammoth Cave join in research partnership

Dave Shinall

Western and Mammoth Cave National Park are now bound by contract in order to study the world’s longest cave system.

President Gary Ransdell and Park Superintendent Ronald Switzer signed an agreement yesterday outside Thompson Complex North Wing.

The contract makes 30 Western students from the biology and the geography and geology departments partners with the U.S. Park Service in an ecological monitoring program started two years ago.

“The park is a wonderful natural laboratory, and I’m pleased that park officials have chosen to collaborate with Western’s faculty and, perhaps more importantly, our students,” Ransdell said.

Under terms of the contract, students will use the park’s $40,000 Polymerase Chain Reaction machine to analyze DNA from fungus and bacteria found in the cave. Students will also maintain the machine.

Dawson Springs junior Elisha Roberson, a recombinant genetics and chemistry major, will be working with the PCR machine to turn tiny, hard-to-study samples of DNA into larger, easy-to-study samples.

“Polymerase Chain Reaction is used to amplify DNA,” Roberson said. “You can put in a sample of DNA and that segment will be repeated over and over inside the machine until you have an amount that you can work with.”

Data collected by students will answer questions about the way acid from fungus and bacteria dissolves rock and the threat of pollution to the cave system.

Researchers from around the world have studied Mammoth Cave for nearly a century, but never the effect microorganisms have on its rock.

The results should give scientists clues about how Mammoth Cave was formed, how it developed and how pollution changes its subterranean ecosystem, said geography and geology professor Chris Groves.

“The biological component just has not been well-understood before, and this will be very exciting, new research in that area,” Groves said.

Michael Soukup, National Park Service associate director for science and natural resources, attended the contract signing.

“The economy at which we can get work out of students is so important to us,” Soukup said. “We get so much out of them. And we get the future park service managers. We get the future park service scientists.”

BEGINITAL Reach Dave Shinall at [email protected]