Much of what is now standard molecular biology was science fiction when many teachers were at college. But it can still be out of reach of the school laboratory. The equipment and materials are too expensive for most schools and there is little in-service training available to bring teachers up-to-date.
Despite this, students at 16 Hertfordshire schools are experimenting with the kind of genetic engineering they read about in newspapers: genetically modified food; creating bacterial sensors to warn of pollution; and the manufacture of insulin for diabetics and Factor VIII for haemophiliacs.
The project springs from a partnership between Hertfordshire's SETPOINT (a network which aims to increase interest in science and engineering), Science and Plants for Schools (SAPS), Bio-Rad, a manufacturer of diagnostic kits and research equipment and pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. It is free for Hertfordshire schools.
Teachers attend a workshop to familiarise themselves with practical work and then A and AS-level students carry out a practical using a Bio-Rad kit.
Leighton Dann, former teacher and research and development officer for SAPS, which runs the workshops with the help of teachers, says: "We demonstrate how scientists engineer bacteria to accept foreign genes."
The practical uses a jellyfish (Aequorea victoria) from the Pacific. It has a gene which encodes a protein called GFP that glows bright green under ultraviolet light and is the most commonly used marker in gene transformation.
The agents used to transfer genes to bacteria are plasmids, circular pieces of DNA, which bacteria carry in addition to their own DNA, and which they often interchange (one of the main ways antibiotic resistance is transferred). The organism used is a safe strain of Bacterium E-coli. "All we have to do is use routine, safe microbiological practice," says Dr Dann.
The atmosphere was full of expectation as students at Hitchin Girls School were introduced to the practical. They first put E-coli samples into two tubes containing calcium chloride solution. A plasmid into which had been inserted the jellyfish gene was added to one tube only. Both tubes were heated up to 42 degrees to heatshock the bacteria, allowing the plasmid to enter the bacterial cells. Nutrient (or broth) was added to the tubes and the cells grown on agar in petri dishes.
It worked: the bacteria which had taken up the plasmid grew successfully, producing green fluorescent protein. The experiment was designed so that only the bacteria taking up the plasmid were able to make the protein that glows green under UV light.
During pauses in the work, Dr Dann described how variations on this same technique were used in genetically modified crops (to reduce the use of pesticides) and the manufacture of insulin and interferon. He also explained how gene defects were identified in DNA. The students' teacher, Carol King, said: "It's an innovative project to inspire pupils and illustrate the theory."
There is nothing like the kit available on the market: previously, teachers would have had to teach the subject just as theory. Like the other teachers at the school, Carol King felt she had learned a lot from the workshop and could now oversee the practical herself.
Widening access, says Sue Allenby, director of SETPOINT Hertfordshire, is the next step, "using videoconferencing to enable more schools to take part and to make videos available on the web, as reminders of techniques". As well as the practicals on gene transformation they will also offer ones on DNA fingerprinting.
Science and Plants for School helps teachers with plant science and molecular biology.
They also run PGCE workshops on molecular biology and organise INSET. Their newsletter, Osmosis, is free for schools and lists activities. www.saps.org.uk
The Bio-Rad kit, which contains everything needed except a UV lamp to perform the bacterial transformation experiment, costs pound;49 plus VAT and handling charges. www.explorer.bio-rad.com
Setnet Hertfordshire is one of 53 one-stop shops for information about initiatives in science, engineering technology and mathematics. www.SETNET.org.uk
Hertfordshire Setpoint: www.setpointherts.org.uk