Biology majors test plant genes to find answers

A scientist in a white lab coat fills small vials with purple solution. His colleague prepares an expensive piece of equipment to isolate a sugar transport gene from thousands of base pairs of DNA. They analyze the data using nothing short of a super-computer.No, this isn’t the laboratory of a research-intensive university, this is happening right here at Castleton State College. Deborah Alongi, assistant professor of biology, and her team of student biologists are carrying out professional level genetic research and analysis.

“Its exactly what I was doing for my post-doctoral research at U Sheffield in England,” Alongi said.

The team consists of senior Darren Colomb, and junior Kieth Lavoie, both biology majors.

Their research, which involves extracting DNA from a plant called Arabadapsis Lyrata and isolating its genes, gives students an opportunity to apply what they have learned in the classroom to real science.

“I feel fortunate to be able to put it on my resume because I can say I know these techniques,” Colomb said.

Alongi says she plans to bring students and other faculty with her to Ireland to gather samples of the plant for further studies.

“It’s exciting to go outside where the plant grows and correlate genetics with how they actually survive,” Alongi said.

The team’s hypothesis is that the plant grows better in a cold, almost arctic climate. The mystery is what the plant is doing in hotter places as far south as North Carolina. Are they adapting to warmer conditions? The answer lies in the plants DNA and team is using everything at their disposal to crack the genetic code.

“Genetics is the most important part of biology, because it just happened and we get to discover how it happened,” Colomb said.

The microbiology lab located in Woodruff Hall is home to equipment that is considered the “Cutting edge of genetics,” Lavoie said.

One such machine, acquired by Alongi last fall through a grant, is the bioinformatics thermocycler. It is used to create a polymerase chain reaction — basically it’s a gene copy machine. Lavoie said the microbiology lab is also home to the fastest computer on campus.

“It can surf Facebook at warp speed,” said Lavoie with a grin.

Analyzing and comparing data is a key part of genetic research. The quad core computer is used to look at genes thousands of base pairs long.

“It might take a few days instead of a few weeks to sequence genes,” Alongi said.

Research will continue well through next year with new student biologists taking the place of graduates. The research trip to Ireland is currently planned for Aug.12-28.

“Were tiny, but we do awesome science here,” said Colomb proudly as he put away his lab coat and safety goggles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Previous post ‘A Chorus Line’ shines
Next post Commuters struggle to keep the car running