What is the likelihood of developing a disease? Can investigators use genetics to identify a criminal? Can scientists predict human behaviors? Grow replacement organs? Heal spinal cords? Cure cancer?
These are all questions Columbus East High School students explored in a redesigned biology course, which will be back next year by popular demand.
The course — Biology II: Human Genetics, Biotechnology and Forensics — teaches students how to conduct research and laboratory work, problem-solve and analyze scientific data.
Aaron Lynott, chair of the science department at East, said the the combination of subjects is not often taught in high school and the lab is the envy of college-level science departments.
Students this year examined their own genetic code.
Biology teacher Derek Chastain described the experiment as a “remarkable, first-time opportunity” for his students.
“A few years ago, as a teacher, I never thought we’d be able to decode student DNA,” he said.
He said the experiment was made possible when the school acquired the necessary equipment over the past couple of years.
“Few secondary schools or even colleges are able to engage in this level of authenticity,” Lynott said.
Mammals are believed to distinguish only five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory.
Recent research shows how we perceive the taste of bitter foods depends on which versions of taste-receptor genes a person has.
“Maybe you and I don’t taste Brussels sprouts the same way, or broccoli,” Chastain said.
So his class conducted an experiment to find out what their own DNA revealed about their taste preferences.
They started by isolating their DNA by rinsing their mouth with saline and transferring the solution to a tube. Then, they amplified the DNA using a method known as polymerase chain reaction. The products were then digested with a restriction enzyme HaeIII — at which point they were ready to be analyzed.
Students inserted a sample of undigested control sample and digested DNA sample into a layer of agarose solution and ran an electric current through the gel.
The students observed how far the DNA moved in the gel to determine if their own sample contained the bitter taste receptor.
Junior Tanushree Batawadekar said she enrolled in the class because she enjoyed shows like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”
Chastain said he hopes to incorporate more of the forensics aspect next year — and that helps recruit students at the start — but the students still had fun with the focus on genetics this year.
“I think they enjoy the class because of the many cool hands-on lab activities we do,” he said. “They have several opportunities to apply their knowledge.”