Colorado High School Students Dissect Insect DNA for Wolbachia

PEYTON, Colo. – Students in Colorado wrapped up this school year digging through insect genes for a national project.

Falcon School District 49 high school students rummaged through local grasslands this month, collecting insects. After prodding millions of arthropod cells to analyze the DNA of more than 30 specimens, they found two carried a harmful parasite May 22.

Through a series of labs, called the Wolbachia Project, they assisted scientists with measuring the frequency of destructive bacteria and its impact on biodiversity.

The Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., started the project in 2005. Sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, it continues to enlist high school students to further the research of Wolbachia.

Scientists estimate the bacteria are living symbiotically in at least 20 percent of the world’s insects, spiders, mites and crustaceans, according to the MBL.

Wolbachia penetrate invertebrate reproductive systems. They can cause cytoplasmic incompatibility between males and females – infected hosts are often unable to reproduce.

The Wolbachia Project encourages nationwide participation in the collection of scientific data, while enhancing student interest in science.

“This is exciting,” said Jaren Prestwich, 16, an eleventh grade advanced placement student at Falcon High School. “We’re getting in there and being a part of the whole field of science … This is actually recorded at the national and international levels.”

“We’re getting in there and being a part of the whole field of science … This is actually recorded at the national and international levels.”

“These students are doing high-end scientific research,” said science teacher Paul Austin, who brought the project to 25 AP students at the high school and six alternative learners at Patriot Learning Center.

To participate and receive resources, Austin attended a three-day teacher workshop at the MBL in April 2011. The course explained five classroom activities, titled “Discover the Microbes Within: The Wolbachia Project.”

Austin presented the project to District 49 in 2011, but his classrooms lacked the sensitive imaging equipment necessary for meaningful results. This year, he received a DNA dark reader that made reading band patterns much easier.

Wolbachia Project

Wolbachia Project

The project’s first lab introduces students to arthropods and the preparation of field-collected specimens. Austin’s classrooms collected ants, spiders, grasshoppers, pill bugs, miller moths and other tiny Front Range critters.

As the labs advance, students use biotechnology techniques to locate Wolbachia.

“This project pulls students into real world scientific research that teaches critical thinking and lab skills,” said Austin, while helping students at Patriot Learning Center prepare insect cells in Polymerase Chain Reaction-ready tubes, May 17.

“We’re trying to find bacteria that people are looking for in bugs,” said Jacob Reyes, 18, holding a tube of ant remains. He was getting ready to use a thermal cycler, which makes the billions of copies of DNA needed to identify Wolbachia.

“I didn’t know it’d be this complicated… Everything is so precise, so exact,” said Reyes. “I never expected to participate in a nationwide project.”

During their last lab, the students conducted a gel electrophoresis analysis of their insect’s PCR-amplified DNA. Using a dark reader to illuminate band patterns, they made comparisons with data from the MBL.

Two students identified DNA with Wolbachia bacteria – a spider and a pill bug. Austin is shipping their products to the MBL. A technician will review their results and produce DNA sequences for a website repository.

The students may learn they discovered genetic strains of Wolbachia that were previously unknown to the scientific community, says Austin.

“Usually, you wouldn’t be able to do this type of research until graduate school,” he said. “High school classrooms usually stop at explaining electrophoresis.

“I’m proud to provide high school students this experience.”

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