Biologists Using New Genetic Research Tool

Kenyon biology students and their professors have begun using one of the newest, most powerful tools in genetic research: real-time PCR. The College recently acquired this equipment with $47,000 in funds from a $1.5 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

"It's very unusual for a small college to have this instrument," says Professor of Biology Joan Slonczewski, the program director for the HHMI grant. Real-time PCR, she explains, is "the fastest growing application in measuring the products of genes"-determining, in effect, the degree to which a particular gene is turned on or off.

Conventional PCR (polymerase chain reaction) technology is designed to make a large number of copies of a gene, a crucial step in sequencing genes for biological research. Real-time PCR, a technique for measuring the amount of DNA produced in the reaction, allows scientists to collect more accurate data more quickly, says Wade Powell, assistant professor of biology. He and Slonczewski, along with Assistant Professor of Biology Karen Hicks, will use the new equipment in teaching as well as research. Powell, for example, studies gene expression in aquatic vertebrates that have been exposed to environmental toxins.

"Real-time PCR is the modern standard for generating publication-quality data in these kinds of experiments," Powell says. "We're training students to become proficient with a method that they'll use when they go on to graduate school and professional careers." A number of courses, including classes in molecular biology and gene manipulation, will use the new instrumentation.

The four-year HHMI grant, awarded to Kenyon in May 2004, will support a variety of initiatives. In addition to the new science equipment, Kenyon plans to use grant funds to create a faculty position in physics, start a math-skills center for students, establish a partnership with the University of Wisconsin at Madison for collaborative student research, and launch four workshops taught by Kenyon faculty designed to help Mount Vernon and Knox County middle-school teachers create hands-on science activities with their students.