Whodunit with a difference

4th March 2005 at 00:00
Dorset students had a day to explore ethical issues in biotechnology and use cutting-edge genetics equipment. Ben Aldiss reports.

A magnificent Rwandan silver-back gorilla lies dead - possibly murdered.

Four suspects lurk in the undergrowth. But which gorilla did the dirty deed? This was the whodunit facing more than 200 Year 12 biology students at a school in Dorchester. Their task was to analyse DNA from a sample of hair found beneath the fingernail of the purported victim, using cutting-edge fingerprinting technology.

Genetics and Ethics Day was the brainchild of Julia Harley and Dr Angela Scott of the Thomas Hardye School in Dorset. Practical biotechnology can appear rather daunting, they feel, and teachers and pupils could benefit from hands-on experience. And it would be an opportunity to explore the complex moral arguments surrounding techniques such as cloning and genetic engineering.

Thomas Hardye is a science specialist school and training college, dubbed "outstanding" by Ofsted. With nearly 700 post-GCSE students, it also has the largest sixth form of any maintained 11-18 school in the country. On the allotted day, the 86 A-level biologists were joined by smaller numbers from six other Dorset schools (the Blandford School, the Gryphon School, Shaftesbury School and Sports College, the Purbeck School, the Woodroffe School and Lytchett Minster School).

Lord Robert Winston, professor of fertility studies at Imperial College London and the BBC's face of popular science, was the keynote speaker on "Genes and human reproduction".He emphasised the huge potential of gene manipulation, for instance in the prevention of thalassaemia, a serious genetic blood disorder that affects large numbers of people from the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and South-East Asia.

Professor Alan Gray, head of the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology in Furzebrook, spoke on the genetic modification debate, and John Waters, head of religion and philosophy at Parkstone Grammar School in Poole, Dorset, laid out the arguments on genetics and ethics. Samantha Hughes, an ex-pupil of Thomas Hardye then in her final year at Cardiff University, encouraged current students to take up genetics after school.

All the students had a chance to try out cutting-edge biotechnology experiments. Kevin May, senior biologist at Lytchett Minster School, said:

"It's a real experience for our students to come here and do hands-on biotechnology - something we can't afford in our small school." His colleague, Debbie Burfitt, concurred: "This gives the children the opportunity actually to do the things we teach, such as the ELISA immunology technique."

A month earlier, Dr Melanie Hanna, of the UK Bio-Rad Explorer programme, trained all 10 Thomas Hardye biology teachers, along with teachers from Woodroffe and Shaftesbury schools, in the techniques of DNA fingerprinting.

Matthew Whitbread, one of the Thomas Hardye biologists, demonstrated this very fiddly procedure. Using Bio-Rad's kits, the students ran DNA electrophoresis on agarose gels to separate fragments of DNA, prepared the day before by Thomas Hardye teachers from "gorilla hair" samples using restriction enzymes. (In an ideal situation, students would perform this stage themselves.) Three Lytchett Minster students were working together, thrilled to be doing grown-up science. "It's great to be given this chance - actually doing biotechnology. We've been taught it, of course, but our school can't afford the kits," says Fiona Hurst. Georgina Wilkinson and Jo Ventham are also enthusiastic: "The equipment is clearly explained and quite straightforward to use."

So what are the prospects for other schools to acquire the training and equipment needed to deliver exciting practical biotechnology? Schools differ widely. Shaftesbury, like most of those attending the event, is relatively small and staff feel they couldn't run to such expense, but students at Cornwall College, St Austell, are luckier. Their school is a biotechnology centre, sponsored by Pfizer, and has been running Bio-Rad practicals for the past three years: "Cutting-edge biology is so important - we're fortunate in being able to afford the kits."

On a limited basis, Thomas Hardye School is prepared to loan gel-electrophoresis equipment and other biotech kits to local schools.

Also, in the afterglow of the success of this event, staff put together a tick-list of procedures and equipment, so that other schools and colleges who have the resources to stage similar biotech days can do so.

* To contact Thomas Hardye School, email: j.harley@thomas-hardye.dorset.sch.uk


The DNA fingerprinting kit for a class of 36 students costs pound;80. The one-day teacher-training workshops cost pound;100 and include a free class kit and biotechnology practicals.

For information from Bio-Rad, email: melanie_hanna@bio-rad.com

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