By Chris Petersen and Madeline Motley
Twelve students spent half of their spring break at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory (MDIBL) this past week. For 8 hours a day these students were in the lab pipetting and analyzing genetic samples and tracking development of marine larvae under the supervision of Dr. Jim Coffman, a research faculty at MDIBL. The students were a part of an annual molecular genetic workshop (formerly known as the short course) offered to COA students by MDIBL staff, designed to introduce students to molecular genetics and developmental biology research in a laboratory setting, while carrying out experimental research. This workshop is part of the colleges Maine INBRE (IDeA network of biomedical research excellence) funding through National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
This year the workshop was entitled Developmental Biology, and focused on Jim’s favorite creature – the sea urchin. The class spent the first day in lectures, learning about developmental biology, gene expression, and quantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) methodology. They then took to the laboratory. First, students examined developing sea urchins under the microscope. They observed and recorded each stage of development. During the process, students were excited to learn more than just the basics of a microscope. After staring into a microscope for several hours a day, the students have a much better idea what the blastula and gastrula stages look like than when they first read about them in a standard biology textbook.
Next, they designed an experiment to test the effects of hypoxia (low oxygen levels) on developing embryos. The low oxygen levels served the role as a type of stress, and the experiment was designed to test the role of stress in gene expression in these developing animals. Finally, students used quantitative PCR (a method that amplifies and quantifies RNA levels) to measure the effects of hypoxia based on the expression of three different genes. Although the original hypothesis was not supported by the initial results, instructor Jim Coffman is excited to take the experiment further to determine other factors by either taking on an interested summer student or carrying it out the following spring with the next short course group.
For many of the students, the best part of this course was the intensive laboratory work. Most of the students took the course so that they could gain real laboratory experience and skills, giving them the opportunity put into practice some of the knowledge they have learned in their COA courses in molecular biology and genetics. From microscope work to DNA extraction and amplification, the students learned a variety of laboratory skills that will be useful for any biology degree.
Also, it’s just fun! As one student described it, “I feel like I’m doing real science!”.
For anyone wanting to try their hand at molecular genetics, Chris and Madeline will be offering a DNA workshop the second and third week of spring term, where we will spend several evenings extracting and sequencing DNA to confirm the identity of fish sold at local markets. The technique we will use, called DNA barcoding, is a common molecular genetic technique used in animal species identification.