North Central High School students’ genetic work on worms could help scientists make breakthroughs

February 11, 2019

Before the students in Dan Shay’s biology class could solve some real-world problems, they had to come to terms with worms.

Thousands of them.

Under the lenses of their microscopes wriggled multitudes of Caenorhabiditis elegans, 1-millimeter-long roundworms.

“Remember, we’re all in the same animal kingdom,” Shay told the class with a wry smile.

“That’s awful,” one student replied.

Unruffled, Shay directed his students to a paper on their lab tables. It showed a detailed illustration of the worm, from one end to the other with lots of body parts that also are found in humans.

Shay warmed to the subject, even if some of his students didn’t.

“You’ll notice it has a tube from mouth to anus,” Shay said.

“Thanks for that,” another student said.

Years from now, thousands of people may thank Shay and his students for their work, which could lead to a better understanding of how to cure the hundreds of connective tissue disorders that affect millions of people.

The work began last year, when Shay and Whitworth University biology professor Aaron Putzke applied for a grant through the Partners in Science Program sponsored by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust.

They got $15,000, enough for two years of research. The project will encompass three to five years and up to 200 students at NC’s Institute of Science & Technology.

“This kind of research, with hands-on experience, has real-world significance and is invaluable to students,” Shay said.

The joint project has its roots in Putzke’s work with developmental biology and cancer. Thanks to a previous grant from the Murdock Trust, he and Whitworth colleague Kent Jones analyzed genes in a zebrafish.

That same work is now being done with the C. elegans worm. Putzke has removed a single gene from the worm – as a result, the worm loses some of its ability to move.

“We can easily isolate what we need to from the worms,” Putzke said. “The technique we need for validation can then be done by high school students. Dan has the equipment and the students already know the technique.”

The students won’t be curing disease but will provide vital information, or data points, to those who can.

“What we are trying to do is learn more about what happens, so that somebody who is working on the human level can use this vital information,” Putzke said.

The project also allows teachers to impart the lessons of genetics in a new way. For decades, the subject has centered on the work of 19th century Austrian monk Gregor Mendel and his research into dominant and recessive genes.

“That’s how it’s been taught in every class in America,” Shay said. “What this is, is that we’re trying to teach them that modern-day genetics is looking at gene regulatory networks.”

In layman’s terms, that means looking at genes as part of a network, and that they “turn each other up and down and eventually we reach an output,” Shay said.

In the lab at NC, the students’ petri dishes were filled with two types of C. elegans worms: wild and mutated, the latter struggling to move after a gene was removed.

As Shay explained to his students, “We are trying to figure out how a clock works, and the cell is the clock.

“We are going to remove a cog in the clock, and then we’re going to see how the rest of the clock behaves after we’ve removed it.”

Worms aren’t for everyone.

“They creep me out a little bit,” said sophomore Kathryn Dunakey, who prefers to study plants. “But this is interesting.”

A few feet away, junior Anne Lewis was transfixed as she studied the translucent creatures that wriggled in the dish.

“This is great, because I want to go on to this career, to maybe one day cure HIV,” Lewis said.

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