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Using advanced techniques to detect the microbial nitty-gritty of what’s in our soils was the focus of a science weekend for 80 high school students at Massey University’s Albany campus recently.
The students, from Kaikohe in Northland and as far south as Christchurch, donned white lab coats and blue rubber gloves to extract DNA from soil samples collected from their regions. They used an advanced technique (polymerase chain reaction or PCR) to amplify and identify bacteria in the soil.
Students around the country were invited in April to take part in a gene-sequencing project, A Picture of Aotearoa, designed to introduce young people to the next generation of genome sequencing technology by mapping the genetic makeup of New Zealand’s soils.
The project, led by Dr Justin O’Sullivan and Dr Austen Ganley, and sponsored by Massey University, the New Zealand Microbiological Society, Custom Science and Roche, aims to produce a snapshot – or “census” – of all the microbial life in our soils. Final results will be available early next year. The data, mapped to show the scope and variation of soil bacteria nation-wide, will help scientists better understand bacterial ecology and issues relating to soil health.
Dr O’Sullivan says the project has provided keen science students with the chance to use sophisticated technology they would not otherwise encounter at school. “The students have really risen to the challenge,” he says. “And their teachers have learned a lot as well.”
Wynter Bolton, a Year 12 student from Kaikohe Christian School, says the weekend was “heaps of fun, especially seeing what science is all about at university level.”
The students and their teachers also attended lectures and workshops by genetic researchers from Massey, Auckland and Otago universities, including two eminent Professors: Paul Rainey, based at Massey’s New Zealand Institute of Advanced Study; and Peter Shepherd, from Auckland University’s medical school.
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 has introduced teenagers to cutting-edge science and technology – and the ethical issues surrounding it.
“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.”