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Getting her students interested in fire ants has been easy, McKone says. She doesn't have to push them to read research papers or ask questions. They are motivated to learn because they are already interested in fire ants. “I didn't know there were so many types of ants,” says student Jerry Fry. “I thought an ant was just an ant.”
So far, four ants from Bogue Chitto have tested positive for the Wolbachia parasite, all from the mound outside the cafeteria. Ants from another mound at the school and from two mounds off campus had no evidence of the parasite. When the students get the full Wolbachia DNA sequence back from MBL, McKone hopes it will tell them how these fire ants are related to those elsewhere or provide some insight into how the bacteria might manipulate fire ants' reproduction.
This summer, McKone, her fellow teachers, and the scientists will assess what they have learned and then finalize the five-part curriculum. They plan to make it available to teachers wherever fire ants are found.
Rockhold hopes the students' Wolbachia research can eventually be combined with that from other students throughout the South to help scientists find out what makes fire ants infected with the bacteria different from those not infected. “If there are enough folks doing the work at different sites, it might ultimately become a comprehensive and meaningful addition to the science,” he says.
Meanwhile, McKone is happy her students have learned about molecular biology using a subject close to home. Perhaps it will inspire them to become researchers—and find a solution to a local problem, she says. “They would love for somebody—and I would love for them to be a part of it—to find a way to control fire ants.”