Area students aid science research

Published 7:00 pm Thursday, December 8, 2011

    Local high school science teacher Kathy McKone wantsstudents to be exposed to other students of different backgrounds,work together to reach a common goal and further the development oftheir skills in biotechnology.

 

    One way she figured out how to do that was to organize the firstbiotechnology rodeo for Mississippi schools, hosted byCopiah-Lincoln Community College.

    McKone, from Enterprise Attendance Center, reached out to otherschools in the Southwest Mississippi as well as the Jackson area toaccomplish her mission.

    Teams of four students from science classes at Enterprise, LoydStar, Bogue Chitto, Natchez Cathedral, Madison Central and St.Andrew’s Episcopal School traveled to Co-Lin on Wednesday to takepart in a lab set on detecting bacteria called Wolbachia thatinfects insects.

    “This was an opportunity to help our students develop high-techskills in biotechnology as they conduct real research that isrelevant to them and the scientific community,” McKone said. “Alsoan opportunity for students from diverse backgrounds to worktogether and learn from each other – a chance many students don’tget until they go to college.”

    The students from each of the six schools brought their own samplesfrom their respective areas, including ants, mosquitoes andfleas.

    “This broadens the sample for their scientific research,” McKonesaid of the samples from different areas of the state.

    Because of the unique nature of the lab, it has caught theattention of Wolbachia Project Coordinator Michele Bahr from theMarine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Mass., who flewin for the rodeo.

    Of the MBL’s many programs for graduate and post-graduateparticipants, Bahr explained this is the only MBL program offeredto high school students. It was funded by a grant from the HowardHughes Medical Institute Pre-College Education Program, shesaid.

    “One reason for involving high school students is we want moredata,” Bahr said. “There is lots to collect and test for Wolbachia.The other reason is to get students involved in real scientificresearch. And biotechnical skills are helpful in the same waywoodshop was a long time ago. Now, biotechnology is a reasonableoccupation.”

    Bahr explained in today’s world, science and medical fields aredominating job markets, and a lab like the rodeo for high schoolstudents helps to prepare students interested in science.

    “It helps in bringing scientific literacy to everyone,” shesaid.

    Bahr said the study of Wolbachia has become a big thing in thescientific community, mainly for the effects on DNA it can have onthe insects it infects.

    “It manipulates changes in the sex ratio,” she said. “It can killmale embryos, cause males to behave more like females. And it cancause all reproduction to occur through females without the malesat all.”

    She said the bacteria can have the potential to be used as a way ofcontrolling insect pests from spreading diseases. For example, inAustralia, she said, female mosquitoes can infect humans withdengue fever. As they get older, they develop the tendency to bite;however, with a strain of Wolbachia introduced when they areyounger, it cause those females to die so that they don’t live longenough to bite.

    The teams of students at the rodeo “competed” against each othersee if their insect samples were infected with the strain ofWolbachia. To do that, biotechnology comes in.

    McKone explained in simple terms what happened at each team’sstation.

    “Students smashed up their insect in a tube containing a liquidsolution,” she said. “This releases the bacteria’s DNA if it wasinside their insect.”

    After adding another chemical to the tube, students spun the tubesat a high rate using a centrifuge, which caused the DNA to separatetoward the top of the tube. Next, the DNA was amplified to make iteasier to work with using a thermal cycler. Finally, studentsloaded the DNA into an electrolyte energy gel to form a bandedpattern.

    “After looking at the results, students determined that all fleastested were infected with Wolbachia, but the ants and mosquitoeswere not,” McKone said.

    McKone explained that all the students were winners in thecompetition.

    “If you get bands, you’re all winners,” she said to the studentsbefore the rodeo began. “There’s no overall winner. You’ll all bewinners.”

    The students will have their results that tested positive sent tothe MBL institute for inclusion in their database, Bahr said.

    McKone said she thought the experiment went very well, and hopes toorganize another in future.

    “I thought it went great,” she said. “We had good results. Itlooked like all students were participating and enjoying eachother. And we stayed on track. That’s the main thing: do you getresults?”