HONOLULU (KHON2) — The ‘Āina Informatics Network in partnership with the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and Los Alamos National Laboratory began working with Hawai’i Baptist Academy to discover and document the rare microbial biodiversity that constitutes Hawai’i Island’s lava caves.

The students used DNA that was isolated from bacteria cultured by Dr. Rebecca Prescott of UH and NASA and Dr. Stuart Donachie of UH. They sequenced what was eventually determined to be a completely new bacterium. This gives them the privilege of naming the new species.

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“There’s always a chance that one of the cultures will be novel, never described to science before; and we don’t actually know until the students complete the sequencing,” explained ʻĀina-Informatics Network coordinator, Eric Tong.

Once the bacterium was identified, the ‘Āina Informatics Network and Dr. Prescott provided the HBA students with more in-depth information on the organism’s genus, genetic traits and details of the cave in which it was collected.

“I learned that there are a lot of things that go into coming up with this scientific name, a name that will stick around for longer than we will be around,” explained Rachel Cheung ‘23, Vice President of HBA’s Pre-Med Club and a student who was also involved in the original genome project. 

With this knowledge, the students proceeded to name the new species Paraflavitalea speifideiaquila. This name combines the latin words for the school’s mascot which is an eagle [aquila], hope [spes] and faith [fides].

“In my day, we were naming our pet goldfish in science class, not novel species!” joked Claire Mitchell, HBA’s Science Department Chair. “Now, our HBA students have the chance to impact not just Hawai’i but beyond. Because this is part of NASA’s ARES Project, the impacts will be far-reaching. For our students to have this opportunity is a science teacher’s dream come true.”

Next steps are to submit to the International Committee on Systematics of Prokaryotes for approval.

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The ‘Āina Informatics Network was created by ‘Ionlani School through funding from Dr. Prescott’s research from NASA Exobiology grant; NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Biology and the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Biological and Environmental Research Division.