RCS students get hands-on learning with DNA fingerprinting experiment

By Julia Green
Roxbury Central School welcomed Dr. Mike Yerky, outreach coordinator with the Cornell Institute for Biology Teachers on November 25 and he led students in Fred Zerega’s advanced placement biology class and Evette Garofolo’s living environment classes in a DNA fingerprinting experiment.
The experiment entailed using modern equipment, such as micropipetors and gel electrophoresis apparatuses, involved in DNA technology research.
“This was part of a grant,” said RCS Principal Eric Windover. “One of the things that Mr. Zerega came to me very proud about is that Roxbury, in his opinion, had been leading the way in DNA profiling and he made the comment to me that awhile ago, Roxbury was recognized as one of the first schools in the area to be working with modern DNA technology with its students. So this is a natural progression from the work that began such a long time ago to now inviting professors in to share their knowledge and equipment.”
The program was sponsored by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, through which Roxbury students were able to do hands-on work with thousands of dollars worth of equipment.
“Back in 1991 or thereabout, this grant was obtained by Cornell to begin the Cornell Institute for Biology teachers and start an outreach program,” Windover said.
Subsequently, Cornell sent applications to schools asking if they would like to participate in the CIBT program. Zerega responded and was eventually approved, and is now involved with the CIBT program. His affiliation with the group enables him to request equipment from Cornell and request that professors come and do outreach programs like last week’s DNA experiment.
Gel electrophoresis is a technique used to separate electrically charged molecules, and is a central technique in molecular biology and genetics laboratories because it allows researchers to separate and purify DNA, RNA and proteins so that they can be studied individually. It is also used frequently in forensics, microbiology and biochemistry. The process itself involves applying an electric current to a gel matrix.
The experiment students conducted involved a simulated DNA fingerprinting experiment consisting of two paternity cases. Students analyzed the experimental results and determined the identity of the biological father.
“The process start to finish was hands-on,” Windover said. “They made the gel themselves, they cut the DNA, they did a little bit of plotting of graphs and tracking data, and then they went back and had to extract and stain the gel, and then after that whole DNA process was done, they even went a little further in and did some DNA spooling, in which they extract a bit of DNA to see how it appears. So, lots of different things.
“There was a lab that corresponded with it, so there was some recording of data and answering of questions,” he added. “But for the most part, students were up out of their seats, around lab tables, working as teams. Students had very specific jobs. It was a very nice system.”
Windover said the feedback from students who participated in the exercise was overwhelmingly positive.
“We actually gave surveys to the students, and there were four questions: What did you think about the lab, was it meaningful to use the equipment and did it help to your understanding of electrophoresis, would you recommend this lab for next year’s class, and if Dr. Yerky was to grade the lab what do you think you would get? And the quick overview – there’s not a single no for ‘would you recommend this lab’ – 100 percent of the students came back with emphatic yeses.”
Windover added that the students’ interaction with a college professor was another enlightening aspect of the experience.
“What was really eye-opening for our students was a college professor who has some higher expectations than what they’re used to,” he said.