Mount A student names new plant after alma mater

A student at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., has honoured his alma mater in a unique way by naming a new species of marine plant after the university.

Michael MacGillivary, who will graduate with his master’s degree in biology in May, discovered three new species of diatom — a type of single-celled marine plant — while completing research for his thesis.

The Paralia diatoms he was studying were previously thought to be a single species, but MacGillivary was able to identify and name three separate ones.

He called them:

Paralia allisonii in honour of Mount Allison.

Paralia ehrmanii after James Ehrman, manager of the digital microscopy facility at Mount Allison, who offered vital assistance throughout the project.

Paralia crawfordii, a nod to Dr. Richard Crawford, a prominent Paralia expert.

MacGillivary’s findings were recently published by the journal, Botany.

"Some can look alike, but they are molecularly different," he said. "Myself and Dr. [Irene] Kaczmarska were the first researchers to look at populations of Paralia on a molecular level."

Kaczmarska, a biology professor at Mount Allison, was MacGillivary’s thesis supervisor.

A native of North Sydney, N.S., MacGillivary also completed his undergraduate biology degree at the university in 2008.

"Mount Allison has been very supportive of me. The Master’s program is really small, but it affords students a lot of opportunity that you wouldn’t get at a bigger university," he said.

"It gives you an opportunity to really get into science and get a feel for it — to be the top dog in the lab and have your supervisor’s full attention."

About a dozen students are enrolled in the program each year.

New technology played a vital role in MacGillivary’s discovery.

The appearance of the scanning electron microscope in the mid-1960s allowed scientists to zoom in on the features of diatoms and begin to discriminate between species.

MacGillivary was able to take things one step further by using DNA testing to differentiate between species.

Kaczmarska said the discovery is impressive for a master's student.

"Although microscopic — it would take 1,000 Paralia allisonii side by side, for example, to cover a centimetre — diatoms are extremely important, forming the basis of most marine food webs and producing nearly 25 per cent of the oxygen we breathe," she said.

Kaczmarska said it is unusual to find a new species of diatom.

There are probably only about 100 found each year world-wide, she said, and just eight species of present-day Paralia have been identified so far, including the three included in this research and a fourth she and MacGillivary are in the process of writing a paper on.

MacGillivary is working at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, N.S., awaiting graduation. He is considering then either pursuing a PhD, or a degree in medicine.