School scientists to dig dirt for NZ microbe census

Press Release – Massey University

Budding scientists from schools around the country are being invited to get the dirt on the genetic makeup of New Zealand soils in a Massey University project to introduce young people to the next generation of genome sequencing technology.February 22, 2012

School scientists to dig dirt for NZ microbe census

Budding scientists from schools around the country are being invited to get the dirt on the genetic makeup of New Zealand soils in a Massey University project to introduce young people to the next generation of genome sequencing technology.

The project, led by Dr Justin O’Sullivan, a senior lecturer in microbiology at the Institute of Natural Sciences at Albany, will produce a snapshot – or “census” – of all the microbial life in our soils.

It involves senior students taking soil samples in a wide variety of locations across the land in April. These will be sent to Massey scientists for DNA extraction, sequencing and analysis before being presented in an electronic document.

Dr O’Sullivan says the project will not only gather valuable data for use as a scientific reference for biodiversity and in monitoring environmental changes, it will introduce teenagers to cutting edge science and technology – and the ethical issues surrounding it – which will be a key tool in personalised medicine of the future.

“DNA sequencing has changed radically over the past five years to the point that it’s now possible to sequence an entire human genome in one week or less,” says Dr O’Sullivan. “These technological shifts are heralding a new era of personalised medicine that relies on the individual’s genome being sequenced.”

Every organism, including humans, has a genome that contains all of the biological information needed to build and maintain a living example of that organism.

He says the project will give participants a keen understanding of the huge advances in how technology is being used in science. With the help of online lectures and instructions they will be responsible for data collection, including temperature, average rainfall, soil type and sample from a depth of 30cm. They will also provide a site picture and geographical co-ordinates and engage in iwi and community consultation.

Students and teachers will then be able to analyse subsets of the data from their samples, as well as the combined results of the study once soil sample DNA has been extracted and sequenced.

The project will result in a census of microbial life in New Zealand’s soils, linking it to the effects of latitude, longitude and climatic conditions. Beyond that, Dr O’Sullivan says learning about the application and use of DNA sequencers will be highly relevant to students’ health as they enter an era when such technology will increasingly impact on their personal lives.

He says the technology is not without its ethical and practical challenges, such as discrimination based on genetic testing that reveals hereditary health conditions. “But this project will introduce these issues to students so they can take better control of their health and well-being,” he says.

Dr O’Sullivan and his colleagues from Massey’s Albany campus organised a similar study last year involving 60 high school students from Auckland and the Coromandel at Hot Water Beach, where they took water and sand samples to sequence organisms from the beach.

So far eight schools from Auckland, Coromandel, Christchurch and Kaikoura are taking part, and it is hoped more will participate.

Schools interested can email Dr O’Sullivan before the end of March at: j.m.osullivan@massey.ac.nz.

ENDS

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