By Lynn J. Richardson
When a self-pronounced “tree farmer” becomes an educator, almost anything can happen.
And it has — at David Crockett High School in Jonesborough.
That’s where Dr. David Yates is helping his students learn about cancer and agricultural research, as well as assisting with local police investigations.
Yates has never done things the usual way. After his formal education at West Point was cut short by an injury, Yates went on to serve his country as an Army Ranger. He returned home to Tennessee, started running a nursery and a tree farm, and then — at the age of 45 — he decided to go back to school.
One undergraduate, two masters and one PhD degree later, Yates found a home at Crockett, where he teaches advanced biology and Hillbilly Heritage, a class that instructs students in old-fashioned ways of living, such as making candles, building a log cabin using only hand tools, and more.
He shares his wide range of experiences with his students, and most recently Yates and his students have been studying the many properties and possible benefits of resin extracted from a rare tree.
Yates learned about the tree, a Japanese conifer, when the West Coast product arrived at his nursery. Curious about its properties, he and several Crockett students started researching the effects of the tree’s resin compounds on cancer cells. Their work was presented earlier this year at the 3rd Annual Cancer Research Symposium which featured the latest in cancer research by University of Tennessee investigators, including a poster presentation program to share research and collaborate on new ideas, and a presentation by featured speaker Daniel DiMaio, MD, PhD, the Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Genetics and Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and of Therapeutic Radiology and Deputy Director of the Yale Cancer Institute. One of his students, Aaron Ford of Jonesborough, is named in the paper presented at the Symposium.
That work earned Yates and his high school some respect and a grant from the Niswonger Foundation for the purchase of state-of-the-art research equipment, including a Fourier Transformed Infrared Spectrometer (FTIR), that can do a chemical analysis in 15 seconds.
While Yates completed his PhD, he put the cancer research on hold until after Christmas, with more trials and experiments to come during spring break. But in the meantime, the students have been putting the equipment to other good uses. with new research and some “real-world” experiences.
“We have been doing drug analysis for Washington County Sheriff’s department,” Yates said. “And we will be also able to detect if there was accelerant used in cases of suspected arson. There are so many uses for the FTIR.”
According to Yates, the school has the only FTIR between Knoxville and NC State, giving local students access to scientific equipment they would never get to see or use until they were at a graduate level at a major university outside the Tri-Cities.
“We have 35-70 advanced biology students who actually get to work on the research here and use the equipment,” he said. “My kids are experts at it.”
Yates is also very excited about the work he and his students are doing with the same resin they have been studying — this time for agricultural applications.
“We think the FTIR might be able to detect the cell wall of a bacteria or a fungi,” he said. “We’re thinking a farmer could bring in a corn leaf and we can detect a bacteria or fungal infection before there is ever a sign. There is a future research for us here, to be able to detect future pathogens before any signs are detected.”
“We have also discovered that this resin can protect grains, like corn and wheat, in storage,” Yates said. “Once the grain has been treated with this all-natural coating, bacteria can’t decompose it. We treated the seeds, left the resin to dry and then made sure the seeds were still viable. And they were. It appears that it is a natural seed preservative.”
However, because the source of the resin is so rare, Yates decided to order pure samples of the known compounds to see if he and the students could replicate the results. They were unsuccessful.
So now, Yates and his students will try again, using combinations of two or three compounds. “We have identified over 100 different compounds in this resin and determined that five of them make up about 90-95% of the resin,” he said. “Those five active ingredients are also found in marijuana and hemp, so we are focusing on those first. We can’t grow marijuana, but we can grow hemp. The THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) level is much lower in hemp.”
“Since we’re dealing with plants, we don’t have to go through clinical trials.” Yates added. “We have done all the testing here at Crockett for the University of Tennessee, and since we have a greenhouse here, we didn’t have work off-site.”
According to Yates, the antimicrobial (antibiotic) portion of the resin research is the easiest to get to the market and at this point, the most promising.
“The possibilities are exciting,” Yates said.