Progress, and Applications
of the Human Genome Project
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy Human Genome Program
Human Genome News Archive Edition
Human Genome News, October-December 1996; 8:(2)
Sequencing the human genome may seem an unlikely activity for teenagers, but Maureen Munn says it's a great way to get them really thinking about genome science and the implications of genetic testing.
"We're making research real for them," says Munn, director of the High School Human Genome Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. The program is partially supported by a grant from the Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues sector of the DOE Human Genome Program. "Students participate in actual research with scientists, many of whom are not much older than the kids and who wear the same T-shirts and backward caps. Along with learning the fundamentals of DNA sequencing, the students hear stories about how they became scientists."
Science and Ethics
In the science component of the instructional module, the classes sequence DNA isolated from a region on human chromosome 5. This region appears to carry a gene associated with a form of hereditary deafness that haunts a large Costa Rican family who can trace their lineage and the disorder back to the mid-18th century. Each student group determines the sequence of a small fragment taken from a - 6.8-kb piece of DNA that was isolated from the genome of a nonaffected family member. They use standard Sanger sequencing methods to generate sets of DNA fragments, which are then separated on a polyacrylamide gel and stained to create purple bands on the gel. "There's probably no better way of conveying the information than by seeing the bases laid out on the gel ladder," Munn says. The entire sequence of the DNA piece eventually will be assembled from all the partial sequences generated by the students, using the same basic method genome researchers use finding overlapping sequences that identify the segments adjacent to each other in a whole, uncut genome.
Students in the program also learn about the impact of genetic research on the lives of real people. Developed by ethicists from the University of Washington Department of Medical History and Ethics, the ethics portion of the module focuses on issues raised by presymptomatic testing in patients at risk for Huntington's Disease (HD). This inherited, severe neurological disorder usually doesn't become symptomatic until midlife. The module provides a scenario about a family that carries the HD allele, descriptions of the clinical and genetic aspects of the disorder, an exercise in drawing pedigrees, and an autoradiograph showing the PCR assay used to detect HD. Students use an ethical decision-making model to decide whether or not they would be tested for the HD allele, and those who choose to be tested are given mock laboratory results.
Munn holds a week-long workshop in the summer for teachers to learn about the program, which was conceived in the Department of Molecular Biotechnology laboratories of Maynard Olson and Leroy Hood. During the school year, the program furnishes local teachers with equipment, supplies, and technical support to carry out DNA sequencing with their students. Teachers from other regions link with scientists in their communities who help provide equipment and expertise.Twenty teachers from the Seattle area are involved with a team of 50 volunteer scientists in the expanding program. Munn also distributes the module to teachers and scientists throughout the country and will send DNA samples to those wishing to - participate.
In October 1996 Munn presented a 1-day version of the workshop at the National Association of Biology Teachers meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina. She was accompanied by two of her lead teachers from the Seattle area, Barbara Schulz and Peggy O'Neill Skinner, who explained most of the scientific and ethical issues to participants while Munn readied water baths and electrophoresis gels.
Although benefits of the program to high schoolers are obvious, Schulz pointed out a somewhat hidden advantage for scientists. "This is a good opportunity for them to reach out," she said. "We help them explain their work to the community. We know the kids talk about this experience at home, because their parents come back to us with questions about the Human Genome Project."
Munn and other participating investigators emphasize to the students the need for accuracy and a sense of responsibility because the data will be entered into the same public databases the scientists use. "This sequence eventually will be compared with one from an affected individual in a search for mutations that may be responsible for the disorder," she said. "When students ask how they can be sure their data is correct, it illustrates beautifully the nature of research: you have to go back and verify your results; there's no answer waiting in the back of a book!" she laughed.
Although she hopes the project will interest some students in science careers, Munn points to a broader goal. "We hope it encourages the development of a new generation of adults who can think creatively and constructively about the implications of science findings and how to make judicious decisions that could someday affect public policies," she said.
[Denise Casey, HGMIS]
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