Giving Students Hands-on Lab Experience: In a science department like Biological Sciences, undergraduates often ask faculty members for the opportunity to do a research project in their lab. While faculty members do what they can to offer those opportunities, none have room in their labs for every student who asks. If the department had a way to provide more research opportunities for our students, they would have a better chance of landing a job with a bachelor’s degree in biology. Enter CURE courses!
What is a CURE course? In a CURE course, students identify a research question they’d like to answer, and then design, perform, and analyze experiments where the outcomes are unknown. Along the way they develop technical skills, learn to trouble-shoot their experimental designs, and problem-solve when experiments don’t work or produce unexpected data. Finally, they learn how to communicate their findings to their instructors, their departments, or at scientific meetings.
Why are CURE courses useful? CUREs can give our students marketable skills for employment in the Memphis biotech industry or research institutes like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Research experience is also important for resume-building for professional schools and new findings could lead to a scientific publication. Seeing concepts discussed in class put into practice in the lab reinforces what they’ve learned.
The Department’s first CURE: BIOL 4090 Synthetic Biology: Drs. Jaime Sabel and Judy Cole, along with graduate assistant Malle Carassaco-Harris, began offering the department’s first CURE course, Synthetic Biology, in the fall of 2018. In this lab, students design and construct a novel biological device using the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) registry of standardized “parts” (DNA sequences that encode a biological function). They then use these devices to answer a specific scientific question. In the pilot run of the course, three groups of students learned to how to make bacteria express plasmids containing a specific part, how to harvest the plasmid from the bacteria, isolate each part, and join the parts together. In Figure 1 a DNA ligase is used to join the LacI V5 promoter (a region of DNA where converting DNA into RNA starts) to a composite part consisting of a ribosomal binding site (a nucleotide sequence that recruits a ribosome to start protein translation) and a green fluorescent protein reporter gene used to indicate that the device is being expressed. If bacteria glow green, they are making the device. In the first running of the class the all three groups of students chose to ask questions about the ability of a cobalt-sensitive promoter to (1) drive the expression of a super yellow fluorescent protein, (2) examine the cobalt promoter's sensitivity to nickel activation and (3) ask if cobalt-induced activation could overcome the effects of a weak terminator. Although we discovered later that the promoter had a mutation that made it insensitive to cobalt (drat!), everyone managed to ligate three parts to make a three-part device.
Figure 2: Images from the first Synthetic Biology lab: (1) bacteria expressing the three-part device on an antibiotic-selective agar plate (2) groups updating their notebooks, (3) prepping DNA for ligation (4) setting up DNA to run an agarose gel, (5) running agarose gels, and (6) Look! Restriction digests shows three parts!
Synthetic Biology Part Deux: At the end of last year's lab, students and faculty had a trouble-shooting session where they all exchanged ideas for improving the student experience. Based on those suggestions, and their own observations on what did and didn't work, Drs. Sabel and Cole are looking forward to a new group of students getting a hands-on experience synthesizing biology.