Monday, September 16

Freshmen to aid DNA research


In April 2003, researchers from the National Human Genome
Research Institute made a breakthrough discovery involving the DNA
sequence of the entire human genome.

The discovery means that scientists can now determine the
location of genes on DNA strands, and the function of those
genes.

Now, UCLA freshmen will also be given the chance to sequence DNA
strands ““ albeit in a less glamorous organism known as
Ammonifex degensii.

Students participating in the General Education cluster
“Biotechnology and Society” will be using technology
developed by the Human Genome Project to assist them in their
task.

“(The students) actually get to do real research and the
data that they get will go into the national databases for
genomes,” said Ralph Robinson, one of three professors
teaching the class throughout the year.

Freshman involved in the class will sequence a previously
unsequenced organism. Their research will be placed in a database
online, such as GenBank, which anyone can access.

The bacteria Ammonifex degensii is currently being used in other
courses at UCLA ““ for instance, in Microbiology 120, where a
similar project is being carried out in greater depth.

Freshmen in the cluster will get a chance to work with research
material developed by upper division students involved in this
class.

There are many uses for the sequence after it is placed in the
database. For instance, the genes of related organisms can be
compared with Ammonifex degensii to see which genes have been
conserved and which ones have evolved over time, Robinson said.

“I think people in our course are really excited to
realize that they are doing something that is a genuine
contribution to science,” said class coordinator Sally
Gibbons.

The class not only focuses on biotechnology, but it also
emphasizes the ethics of science as well.

“I think the most interesting thing about this class is
that it combines both science and ethics,” said Megan
Stevens, a first-year political science student.

The class also allows students to develop a more practical
understanding of what they would otherwise only read in their
textbook.

“The skills we have give us a deeper appreciation of
what’s going on in the labs in the country “¦ we can get
a better understanding of what they’re doing and how that
affects our lives too,” said Jerome Fang, a first-year
undeclared student.

Gibbons said in general, she thinks students enjoy the
class.

“I think the students find it satisfying that
they’re always thinking about one of the cutting edge issues
in biotechnology from a scientific view and an ethical point of
view,” she said.

Robinson says that the sequencing of Ammonifex degensii will
take a couple of years, and even after the sequencing there will be
much work to do.

“It’s like having one of those 5,000- piece jigsaw
puzzles and you’ve only got 20 pieces in the right
position,” Robinson said.

The actual interpretation of the sequenced genes will occur
afterward, with practical implications.

“(Ammonifex degensii) has potential industrial
applications ““ for example, proteases that work at high
temperatures for laundry detergents, or proteins that tolerate
extreme changes in pH for food manufacturing,” Robinson
said.

Students said the professors do an exemplary job in giving a
well-rounded education in biotechnology by bringing in guest
speakers from different departments at the university and having
seminars over specific aspects within the course, such as science
fiction’s interpretation of biotechnology or AIDS.

The professors also hold round-table discussion sessions dubbed
“Oprah sessions” by Gibbons during which students can
discuss various course topics.

And while students at UCLA will be sequencing Ammonifex
degensii, researchers across the country will be interpreting the
human genome sequence.

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