Taking it to the Bank

Tuesday, April 23, 2013
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The students in Estelle Hrabak’s Genetics Lab course have been growing plants from seed only to freeze their leaves and grind them into powder with a mortar and pestle. This destruction of the plants is a critical step in a complex, multi-step process that enables these genetics majors to isolate a specific gene for DNA sequencing.

And what would motivate them to do that? Everything.

Genomic sequences for anything from a new lineage of bacterium collected in the brine-filled deep of the Red Sea to three separate populations of the endangered Aye-aye lemur are stored in a vast database known as GenBank. In addition, one can find sequences for individual human beings, single gene mutations that cause disease, and crop plants that sustain large populations. “The amount of DNA data is growing astronomically,” says Hrabak, emphasizing the importance of a genomic sequencing process that’s become unimaginably fast in the past few years. “And scientists use GenBank all the time to compare genes between species, to find promoters and other regulatory sequences, and to design experiments.”

The implications for research findings from the analysis of genomic data are simply staggering, with impacts on medicine, agriculture and global ecosystems. In fact, federal agencies require that scientists submit to GenBank any sequences that are generated with government funding. Although the Genetics Lab class is not federally funded, Hrabak’s Genetics Lab students will be playing in this major league if all goes well; they fully anticipate generating first-time-ever sequences for the watermelon, dill, basil, and mustard plants they grew from seed for inclusion in the GenBank database.

When Kaylyn Bergquist ’15 was a high school senior in Lakeville, MA, she came to visit Hrabak to help her decide whether to attend UNH. “It was talking with Dr. Hrabak that made me want to come here,” says Bergquist who felt confident the professor would offer the challenge she wanted in her educational pursuit and to develop a nascent interest in genetic counseling. “Time flies by in these four-hour labs,” Bergquist says, praising the ample opportunities for hands-on experiments in support of research that has real world relevance.

The Genetics Lab course is exclusively for genetics majors, and incorporates a number of hands-on experiments under the guidance of Dr. Hrabak with special guest lectures this year from Professors of Molecular, Cellular, and Biomedical Sciences Lou Tisa and Kelley Thomas.  “Part of the purpose of this class is to reinforce the basic genetic principles students learned in the Introduction to Genetics class in the fall. Plus, they gain valuable practice with hands-on research to expand on their basic understanding with some more complex aspects of genetics,” says Hrabak. “The lab experiments give students direct experience with classic model organisms like fruit flies and yeast, and this plant experiment gives them exposure to many of the techniques you’d find in a modern molecular lab, such as gel electrophoresis, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), bioinformatics, and methods for cloning DNA into a plasmid.”

Students Billy Swanton ‘15 and Devan Chirgwin ’15 have teamed up to extract the DNA from a mustard plant in order to produce its genomic sequence for inclusion in the GenBank database. Swanton, who would like to work with bioinformatics in the future, says, “I chose UNH because it is one of the few schools with a strong genetics major. And it helps that Hrabak is such a good teacher.” They are both excited about the prospect of contributing data to the GenBank database. “It’s great for our resumes,” says Chirgwin. “Plus, it’s cool to see what people are doing in the field and be able to participate with this kind of research in class on a professional level.”