GGC selected to offer innovative genomics course

Students at Georgia Gwinnett College will soon search for undiscovered organisms hidden in common dirt, thanks to an innovative genomics course funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

Students at Georgia Gwinnett College will soon search for undiscovered organisms hidden in common dirt, thanks to an innovative genomics course funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

GGC is one of only 12 colleges and universities chosen through a competitive application process to provide the National Genomics Research Initiative course for three years beginning in the fall of 2011. Other institutions recently selected include Johns Hopkins University, University of Florida, Ohio State University and Brown University.

“This is an exciting opportunity for GGC,” said Thomas Mundie, dean of the School of Science and Technology. “This innovative course will expose non-major biology students to the excitement of scientific discovery, and offer majors in biology, mathematics and information technology with a hands-on introduction to the rapidly expanding field of bioinformatics.”

Since 2008, almost 1,700 students at 40 colleges and universities have spent a year discovering organisms, often in soil samples from their own campuses. As part of the course from HHMI’s Science Education Alliance (SEA), the students—primarily freshmen—have isolated at least 1,400 soil-dwelling bacterial viruses, called phages, and analyzed the DNA sequence of almost 100 different phages.

During fall semester, student groups will collect soil samples from across the campus and use research laboratory techniques to isolate and grow their phages. Given the diversity of phages, each group is likely to isolate different phages. After the groups extract DNA from their phage samples, instructors will select one group’s sample for sequencing. This selection will be based on how well the students conducted their work, including a group presentation on the research.

During winter break, DNA from the selected phage will be sequenced at one of several research centers across the nation and the results sent back to GGC.

“Because there are billions of different types of phages, there is a good chance that our students will discover a previously unknown phage,” said Mundie. “If so, the students will be able to name it.”

During the second semester of the course, students majoring in biology, mathematics and information technology will work together to use bioinformatics tools to analyze and annotate the genomes from the phage’s DNA sequence. If the phage is unique, all involved students may collaborate on submitting a paper on their research to a scientific journal.

“It is rare for one course to offer such educational benefit to students in different majors,” said Mundie. “Non-majors will learn how the scientific method works by studying something they have personally collected. In addition, it offers a practical experience for students majoring in fields that comprise the multi-disciplinary area of bioinformatics.”

Several members of the GGC School of Science and Technology’s faculty collaborated on the application for SEA membership, led by Alessandra Barrera, assistant professor of biology; Melinda Maris, assistant professor of biology and Latanya Hammonds-Odie, assistant professor of biology.

Located in Chevy Chase, Md., HHMI created the SEA in 2007 to develop resources that enable undergraduate science educators to present innovative courses and programs. The National Genomics Research Initiative is the alliance’s first program, and HHMI has committed $4 million to the course. With the new schools, the course is now being taught in 29 states and Puerto Rico.

HHMI provides training, research and laboratory materials. In the first two years that the SEA course has been available, students completed the process for 37 phages and deposited the DNA sequences into the national GenBank database. At least 50 more will be completed this year, according to HHMI officials.

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