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Whiz Kids

Adam and Shayla made a scientific breakthrough that might transform a billion-dollar industry. But their parents still expect them to set the table.

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Whiz Kids

Hidden near the end of a coiling side road in Buckhorn, Ont., sits the Larson residence: an open-concept home with high ceilings and tall windows. It’s dinnertime and Shayla Larson and Adam Noble are bickering about what kind of animal heart they dissected in their Grade 11 biology class. Shayla thinks it was a pig. Adam says rat. “We’ve been referred to as ‘the old married couple,'” says Shayla.

Like most kids their age, Adam, 18, and Shayla, 17, have lots of friends, enjoy playing sports and love to party. And yet, you can’t quite call them typical. The teens are obsessed with nanosilver: microscopic, germ-fighting bits of silver found in everything from riding helmets to toothpaste to baby pacifiers. Silver’s potent antibacterial powers were well known even to the ancient Greeks, who used the metal for plates and jugs to combat spoilage. For the last 60 years, silver has been broken down into tiny concentrations for a range of commercial applications, such as swimming pool cleaners, but the advent of nanotechnology has accelerated its introduction into hundreds of new products. The medical community, for example, is excited by the prospect of nano-silverized bone pins, catheters and artificial body parts-three of the many medical devices that can act as carriers for infection.

Adam and Shayla, however, have learned the miracle component isn’t all it’s hyped to be. After months of research, they proved the chemical is also kryptonite for euglena, a lake-based algae deemed an “indicator species,” or an ecological early-warning system that signals environmental pollution. The discovery that euglena are harmed by nanosilver is a vindication for nanotech critics worried about the lack of research on the full array of nanoparticles now entering the environment. Should Adam and Shayla’s research eventually prove nanosilver is toxic to human cells, the finding could cripple the nanosilver trade, currently a multi-billion-dollar industry.

In May 2011, the teens earned one of four $4,000 Young Canadian Innovation Awards; the annual competition takes place at the Canada-Wide Science Fair, held that year in Markham, Ontario, just outside of Toronto. (The awards are an initiative of the The Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation, based in Calgary.) Adam and Shayla’s project, titled “The Hazards of Nanosilver Uncovered,” beat out hundreds of other entries, among them a new search-engine algorithm and a cancer-fighting drug, and was given the science fair’s gold prize. Three months later, the nanosilver project garnered the pair an expense-paid trip to the Stockholm Junior Water Prize-the highest international award for youth in water studies-where, against finalists from almost thirty countries, they placed in the top five. Their fame followed them back home to Buckhorn, where they made local headlines-something their friends still tease them about. “When I go to a party, my friends introduce me as the super genius,” Adam says. “It’s kind of cool.”

(Photo: Courtesy of Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation)

Next: Friendly competition and early signs of genius

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 Adam and Shayla’s friendship began as a rivalry. “We’re both extremely competitive,” says Adam, who shared numerous classes with Shayla at Lakefield Secondary School where the two honour-roll students battled constantly for top marks. But when Adam decided to use euglena to measure toxicity levels in the Trent-Severn Waterway, he hit a wall. Adam had already confirmed euglena’s value as an indicator species for a regional science-fair project the previous year (where he won first place), but the science involved in his new initiative was far more complex than he had anticipated. So he recruited the brightest person he knew-his rival and classmate, Shayla. Adam marvels at how smoothly they fell in step. “My way of thinking is, like, out there. I’m a creative learner. Shayla brings it down, she’s a realistic learner. It’s a good partnership.”

Like those of many gifted kids, Adam and Shayla’s talents declared themselves early. Adam’s parents, Brian and Nora, tell the story of how Adam would pore over wildlife classification books at age three, asking his parents-both veterinarians-to teach him the Latin names of animals. According to Nora, her son’s ability to absorb large amounts of information led him to study tent caterpillars in Grade 2. (“I once ran a red light because, after dropping Adam off, I looked in the rear-view mirror and the whole back seat was crawling with them.”) In Grade 4, he correctly identified-to his principal’s panic-poisonous black widow spiders in his schoolyard.

Shayla’s parents tell a similar tale about early-surfacing tendencies. Annette Larson and her husband, Bentley-both teachers in the nearby town of Lindsay, Ontario-knew from the beginning their daughter was a doer. The only girl on a AAA boys hockey team, Shayla was being groomed to be a star athlete. But a tobogganing accident at the age of 13 almost cost her a leg and killed her dream of playing Olympic hockey. The incident shifted Shayla’s dedication and focus to science, where she found she had a natural aptitude. Like Adam, she wants to be a surgeon; her mother jokes that she’s already had an early start. “One day, we came into the kitchen and all our bananas were stitched up,” she says. “Shayla had decided to peel them and suture them up, multiple times, as if she was in medical school.”

Next: The study of nanosilver and breakthrough discoveries

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Having already participated in a science fair, Adam knew the competition at the Canada-Wide Science Fair would be fierce. The pair needed a big project. After talking it over with various teachers, they decided to focus on nanosilver, a substance whose potential toxicity had attracted little study. Scientists knew nanosilver could be counted on to eradicate pathogens such as fungi, moulds and spores. But could you trust it? Studies had already shown that, when washed, nanosilvered socks-the metal is used to kill odours-shed substantial amounts of the particle. What happened to the nanosilver after that was anyone’s guess. One cause for concern is that, when reduced to a molecular level, particles take on unusual properties. To understand the scale at which all this activity is happening, consider that a human hair is 80,000 nanometres wide-a nanometre is a billionth of a metre-and a virus is under 100 nm. But nanoengineers, especially for the kind of complex coatings given to items like socks, can shrink a substance to as little as 1 nm. At that size, particles can migrate almost anywhere. They can cross skin, enter the bloodstream or cells-even DNA. The question almost asked itself: What other biological effects might nanosilver have?

For five months Adam and Shayla holed up in their high-school science lab. “We were there at lunch hour, after school, sometimes between classes,” says Adam. “When an experiment ran longer, one of us would rush back to class and take notes, while the other continued working.” They also frequently commuted to Trent University, where they teamed up with Dr. Paul Frost, one of the country’s top biologists in water studies. Dr. Frost agreed not only to mentor the teens-Adam’s father had contacted him after reading about his work in the local paper-but also to give them full access to the university’s state-of-the-art facilities for the trickier aspects of their research. “They grew euglena in temperature and light-controlled growth chambers,” explains Frost, “and measured euglena responses with a microscope and with a fluorometer. None of this equipment was available to them in their high-school laboratories.”

Adam and Shayla made two key discoveries. The first was a novel method for testing for nanosilver in water. Called ion-exchange reaction, the process-a direct application of a concept they learned in their chemistry class-involves adding a substance with an opposite charge to the material you’re trying to remove, in order to cause the two materials to bind and make a precipitate that can then be sifted out. Adam and Shayla decided to use the method deductively. They learned that you could find evidence of nanosilver in a water system simply by isolating, and therefore eliminating, all other types of silver first. “A couple of Ph.D. students were also on the case, and I think we beat them to it,” says Adam, with a half-smile and shrug.

Adam and Shayla then had a second breakthrough. Based on their research, they theorized that nanosilver genetically mutates euglena by breaking down their DNA. Their hypothesis-which had never been persuasively reported on-was that nanosilver sticks to the outside of the euglena and transports its particles into the cell. These particles then release charged silver atoms that become attracted to the DNA components that are also charged. When they bind, the DNA gets broken down. They tested their hypothesis on the drosophila fruit fly and found its DNA disintegrated in just the way they’d predicted (causing mutations such as long abdomens and misshapen heads).

Next: Research that benefits freshwater ecosystems

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In an elegant twist, the two discoveries bracket each other. By proving nanosilver breaks down the DNA of euglenas and drosophilas, Adam and Shayla confirmed its toxicity to certain living organisms. But by creating a method through which nanosilver can be reclaimed from water systems, they hint at one way the biological threat might be removed from the environment.

Dr. Ann McIlmoyle is a reseacher who has supervised science fair projects at Lakefield Secondary School for the last five years. She has helped lots of high-achieving students brainstorm ideas and plan experiments, but few as exceptional as Adam and Shayla. “They’ve made discoveries significant to the preservation of freshwater ecosystems in Canada and in many other countries,” she says. “Not bad for two Grade 11 science students from small-town Ontario.”

In the kitchen, Adam and Shayla continue bickering about biology-class dissections while Annette dons a pair of oven mitts to remove the lid from a fragrant stew. On the cusp of graduation, the teens plan to attend university but are undecided about where that will be. Options abound: The pair have been offered thousands of dollars in scholarships from various Canadian schools.

For the moment, Adam and Shayla are happy that the madness of the Manning Awards and Stockholm has finally subsided, but admit it will be hard to stop working on the project. They have already filed more than 20 potentially lucrative patent claims and Adam has decided to go deeper into their research to see if nanosilver is stunting the stem-cell growth in animals, and possibly causing cancer.

“The professors we work with say these are discoveries people have been desperate to make,” Shayla says, “discoveries that would make their careers.” She pauses. “It’s become an addiction for us.” Then she smiles, scoops a pile of bowls from her mother’s hand and sets the table.