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ASC delivers world’s highest known plant life from Everest to the lab

By Emily Stifler

On a recent climb of Mount Everest, climber and mountain guides Willie and Damien Benegas collected a sample of the world’s highest known plant life, at 22,300 feet. The brothers returned to the States and mailed the material to the Bozeman-based non-profit Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation.

ASC’s founder, Gregg Treinish, who coordinated this effort, delivered the samples to Tim McDermott, an MSU professor in Microbial Ecophysiology. McDermott will extract rock material from it to analyze the microbes living on its surface, and then pass it on to Rusty Rodriguez, a microbiologist who works with the U.S.G.S.

Rodriguez plans to extract DNA from the plants to determine the microorganisms associated with them. His “ultimate hope is to isolate fungus that we think is living symbiotically with this plant. Because it can live in extreme conditions, if we can show it’s the fungus that allows it to do that, we can likely move it into agriculture and have it help plants be more adapted to stress.”

It is that symbiotic relationship that Treinish says, “could provide answers for how we will feed the world in the face of a changing climate… This fungus could shed light on how to make crops throughout the world adapt to more extreme droughts, floods, and specifically frost.”

This is one of approximately 35 expeditions Treinish is coordinating through ASC, a non-profit he founded in Bozeman in 2010. So far, he’s worked with professional adventure athletes like the Benegas brothers, and with casual hikers, whom he’s trained to help with a worldwide pika data collection project.

Rodriguez said the work ASC is doing is “unique and spectacular. It’s taking a National Geographic approach, but to a new level. It’s a move for understanding conservation.”

ASC is growing quickly. Just last week, Treinish posted an email on an eco list serve and received 150 responses in three hours. “Scientists from India, Pakistan, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Ecuador have contacted us, interested in having us help coordinate their research,” he said.

Although citizen science often gets a bad rap because the data isn’t necessarily as controlled, Treinish said many of these projects have “the advantage that we often send expeditions or people to places that are repeated again and again.”

The pika study, for example, has 22 teams taking the same data on the same trail over a period of time. “So your data becomes more verifiable with each recording,” Treinish said. Moreover, he looks for projects that can be independently verified. “If we’re collecting DNA samples—like on Everest—it doesn’t matter if a citizen scientist or a PhD collected it, a lab will independently tell you the information that can be useful scientifically.”

Rodriguez said as long as the data collectors have the proper equipment and instructions, ASC’s system works. “Scientists need to learn how to communicate with the adventurers to ensure there is accuracy and quality there.”

In the last two months the science community has really embraced ASC, Treinish said. Perhaps this is because ASC’s work can save scientists like McDermott and Rodriguez time and money, and according to Treinish, “can speed the process along of understanding what’s [on Everest] by years.”

Even with more new members in June than in the previous six months combined, ASC is nowhere near where it needs to be in terms of funding, Treinish said. He’s also applied for and inquired about 200-plus grants. But “there are a lot of strong, narrow requirements for granting foundations. Because we’re a new concept and a new organization, we don’t fit into those well.”

Rodriguez says ASC’s approach is underrepresented and he hopes it will continue to grow. He imagines the ecotourism industry, for example, could provide citizen scientists the opportunity to record data or collect samples all around the world. In fact, he said, it’s a necessity:

“The future of our understanding of climate change and how that will impact natural and agricultural ecosystems will depend on how well we can make observations on a smaller scale.”

adventureandscience.org

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Want to get involved?

Visit Adventures and Scientists for Conservation to donate or sign up for an expedition. “There are projects available for everyone, from world class adventure athletes to your basic weekend warrior or day hiker,” Treinish said.