Mapping the future: Genetics students participate in innovative study

DNA sequencing is considered the main language of biology. During the fall semester, students at Missouri Southern had the opportunity to delve deep into its hidden secrets using an innovative procedure.

Students in Dr. Gerald Schlink’s genetics class participated in a national scientific exploration of gene annotations through synthetic biology. By using scientific programs, algorithms and websites, they were able to map the makeup of genes, their functions and how they affect the development of organisms.

Students in Dr. Gerald Schlink's genetics class gave presentations after evaluating gene strands.

Students in Dr. Gerald Schlink’s genetics class gave presentations after evaluating gene strands.

The students learned how to use state-of-the-art bioinformatics tools to explore real data through a procedure called “genomics” — making MSSU one of only about 50 other schools in the nation to be involved with the program. The high-tech process offers a new way to teach fundamental concepts and show that bioinformatics algorithms are simply mathematical articulations of biological principles.

While it was only the first semester the study has been offered at MSSU, plans are underway for it to be offered each year.

“We all learned fundamentals of genetics, as well as basic skills required by professionals entering the field of genetics,” said student Noah Triplett.

The class learned how to “BLAST” (an algorithm for comparing primary biological sequence information) a particular gene to see what it’s coded for, its function, how it relates to other genes and the 3-D structure of the resulting protein. Triplett said that after doing this procedure once or twice, it became less difficult and more interesting.

“The hardest part was the proverbial first step,” he said.

After the students completed the process of evaluating and decoding their gene strands, they compiled their findings in a PowerPoint presentation they each delivered to the class. The visual production included 3-D models of the strands, the functions of each one and a detailed summary of the gene’s coding.

“This project, and the class in general, has given me a broader understanding of, deeper appreciation for, and more passionate interest in genetics,” said Triplett.

Schlink said the process of advanced genomics will eventually be implemented into other science fields. For now, it’s taken root in genetics and will expand from there.

“Synthetic biology is so advanced, 30 years ago, people wouldn’t have even thought it would ever exist — it’s hard to comprehend that technology,” said Schlink. “The kids need to know that there’s something like this out there that will change science.”

He said the opportunity for his students is a practical, beneficial lesson to instill them with knowledge they’ll need in their future careers.

The innovative procedure  allowed students to be at the forefront of new discoveries through genomics while using their own scientific skills.

“We managed to gain valuable insights,” said Triplett, “none of which would have been possible without the camaraderie of the students or the leadership of our professor.”