Transformation in the laboratory

23rd April 2004 at 01:00
Ben Alldiss takes a look at how the biotechnological revolution is taught in a Hertfordshire school

Bio-Rad 'Biotechnology Explorer Program' kits for schools. Each kit provides equipment for eight workstations. Prices are exclusive of VAT and delivery.

Bacterial Transformation pGLO, pound;50. Protein Purification GFP, pound;70. DNA Fingerprinting, pound;75. Genes in a Bottle, pound;75. DNA Necklace Module, pound;15 (complements Genes in a Bottle; enough for 18 students) PCR, pound;140

Can jellyfish glow? Can A-level students perform cutting-edge technologies in under-funded school science laboratories? At John F Kennedy Catholic School in Hemel Hempstead, biology teacher Lucy Hutt is turning her sixth-form on to such ground-breaking methods as PCR (polymerase chain reaction), bacterial transformation and DNA fingerprinting, using the exciting new Salters-Nuffield Advanced Biology specification (SNAB).

In the lab a class of 10 Year 13 pupils are preparing to "transform" some Escherichia coli bacteria. They are about to do genetic engineering. In a 50-minute lesson these 17 and 18-year-olds can create new organisms by tinkering with DNA, the code of life, under the tuition of Dr Leighton Dann of Cambridge University-based Science and Plants for Schools (SAPS). This type of genetic engineering is relatively straightforward. You scrape bacteria from an agar plate, mix with ice-cold calcium chloride solution, then add some plasmids - microscopic rings of DNA containing the gene you want to "engineer" - into the bacteria. Today it is the turn of Bio-Rad's so-called pGLO plasmids.

Then comes the magical part: after 10 minutes on ice, the mixture is heated rapidly to 42C for 50 seconds, before being quickly cooled again. Simple as that. This heat-shock gives the plasmids a tiny opportunity to get through the outer membrane of the living bacteria and transform them by adding the new gene to their own genetic code. After morning break, the students were ready to perform the heat-shock. How would they know their bacteria contained the alien gene? This is where the glowing jellyfish come in. The inserted gene (called the GFP gene - Green Fluorescent Protein) comes from a species of jellyfish that fluoresces in ultraviolet light. By growing the transformed bacteria in an incubator for 24 hours, then shining ultraviolet light on the now-visible colonies, the transformed ones are revealed in all their glory - glowing an eerie green.

Students are enthusiastic: "I'm a lot more interested in biology than before, thanks to Bio-Rad and Dr Dann," says Cara Keane. Rachel Parkins agrees: "We can actually do experiments that are relevant to everyday life." For John F Kennedy School, the Biotechnology Project and Bio-Rad's kits have "really facilitated the delivery of the new SNAB specification," says Lucy Hutt. In their second lesson, Anisha Vadher and Sean Young are preparing samples of the GFP protein for purification and subsequent concentration by chromatography. Later, while the chromatography was in full swing, they watched the progress of the protein as it drained through the tube, glowing under the UV light. Within minutes, the girls had captured the sample in a phial - a pool of green fluorescence. From jellyfish to bacterial "factory" to purified product in two lessons.

Schools may feel the price for exciting biotechnology is high, but headteacher Bernadette Jenkins says: "I'm thrilled with Lucy Hutt's initiative. This biotechnology is a real motivator."

* Further detailsBio-Rad: www.explorer.bio-rad.com

SAPS: www.saps.org.uk

John F Kennedy Catholic School: www.jfk.herts.sch.uk

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