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DNA equipment boosts undergraduate research

An $84,000 grant from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center is helping Elon University purchase state-of-the-art equipment for processing DNA samples, a move that will accelerate and expand faculty and undergraduate science research that, until now, has relied on outside companies for processing.

Laura Segars, a junior biology major, will see immediate benefits to her research into toxic mushrooms when new equipment used for processing DNA samples becomes operational at Elon this summer.

The grant supports two pieces of equipment: a DNA sequencer and a Real-Time PCR thermal cycler, both of which will reside in the McMichael Science Building.

The DNA sequencer allows for highly detailed analysis of DNA fragment size and composition. Its primary purpose is to obtain genetic sequences of samples. While students and faculty have been able to send samples away for sequencing, by having the equipment on campus, it reduces the turnaround time and the cost of running tests. It is also a boon for students who get to work with the advanced equipment themselves.

The Real-Time PCR thermal cycler permits researchers to target, amplify and quantify specific genes in a sample.

Both the sequencer and thermal cycler should be operational by summer and gives Elon University, in the words of a key supporter of the effort, a “tremendous advantage” for students taking part in undergraduate research.

“Molecular biology is pushing a lot of other fields right now,” said Antonio Izzo, an assistant professor of biology and the principal director of the grant application. “It’s a good time for this.”

Adding a DNA sequencer and Real-Time PCR thermal cycler to the inventory of the McMichael Science Building aids students such as Laura Segars, a junior biology major from Potomac, Md. Segars, with guidance from Izzo, is studying the deadly toxins found in a common species of mushroom found through North America.

The Elon College Fellow wants to know if, in addition to the toxin secreted by the visible portion of the mushroom, whether the fungus uses it to ward off threats underground. Addressing this question requires the processing of several samples of DNA to isolate and quantitate particular genes and to analyze their DNA sequence.

“We’re looking at what happens under the soil and if the toxic gene is in it,” said Segars, who said she is excited about the research possibilities the new equipment brings with it. “It will allow me to get quicker results and ask more questions about why this toxin is being produced.”

Seven additional faculty members – Linda Niedziela, Jeffrey Coker, Yuko Miyamoto, Greg Haenel, Brant Touchette, Janet MacFall and Kathryn Matera – collaborated with Izzo in submitting the grant application.

Eric Townsend,
2/24/2009 10:44 AM