Photo/IllutrationNatsuno Shimoyama, left, and Chihiro Ota with their certificates of merit for the JFE Steel Prize that they won in the Japan Science & Engineering Challenge 2017 (Keita Yamaguchi)

KURASHIKI, Okayama Prefecture--Two high school students have won a prize for a school biology club's longstanding study of a flower-derived yeast that could be applied for producing ethanol fuel from wood scraps.

Natsuno Shimoyama and Chihiro Ota, both 18, third-year students at Seishin Girls’ High School here, won the prize in the Japan Science & Engineering Challenge 2017, an annual research competition for high school students, after their predecessors started studying yeasts in 2010.

The JFE Steel Prize, supported by that manufacturer, will give scientific apparatus to their school worth 1 million yen ($9,200).

In South America and other parts of the world, bioethanol is often produced from grain, such as corn. Rather than making ethanol from edible crops, making it from scrap wood could help alleviate food shortages, the students suggested in their report.

To make ethanol from wood, it has been accepted that a separate process of decomposition by microbes and fermentation by yeasts are required.

The pair's project confirmed yeasts found in wild azaleas have the ability to both decompose and ferment tree-derived biomass, and it could be used to produce bioethanol.

The two girls stepped into the world of yeasts all thanks to senior members of the biology club they joined.

When they were first-year students, they always came across two senior students studying something in the club room after school among cages of newts and salamanders.

They asked what they were doing and were told that they were studying yeasts.

Even though they did not understand a single thing they told them, they thought it sounded interesting.

They took over this yeast research that biology club members have been working on since 2010 in their second year.

They looked after the animals kept by the club and often worked until nearly 8 p.m. They came in almost every day during long holidays and would also sometimes stay overnight on the premises.

But results were not easy to come by.

Culturing a yeast could take up to a week. They also often had to restart from scratch if a culture grew mold.

They once had to discard a plastic bagful of petri dishes that were messed up.

It took them months to get the knack of the experiment. It started to come right around autumn in their second year.

The girls, who had been in the same class for six years since junior high school, said that despite all the difficulties they had each other's support and that is why they never gave up.

In the club room, they played songs by E-girls, their favorite idol group, while working on experiments.

They shared the joy of each success, and buffeted by that experience, they looked forward to the next day. Even when an experiment failed, they strove on.

“We were on the same wavelength toward the same goal. Time flew as we were doing it together,” said Shimoyama.

They will finally part ways when they enter universities, as Shimoyama will study biology and Ota will study nursing science.

But they are confident that the tenacity and work ethics they learned through the course of research will be useful in the future.

Now, before their graduation, they are exploring preservation methods of yeasts to pass on this research to younger students.