WESTFIELD - Some local high school students are getting the chance to do some serious science.
Westfield Academy and Central School biology teacher Lon Knappenberger has teamed up with Dr. Stephen Koury, a professor and research assistant in the school of medicine at the University at Buffalo to give his students the chance to do some college level work. The 18 students in Knappenberger's biotechnology techniques class have been annotating nine genes from the bacteria Kytococcus sedentarius for the last few months. Gene annotation is the process of determining the location of genes and what they do. Annotation is important because once the genome of an organism is known, annotating tells scientists what the functions of different sections of the genome are.
The University has adopted this bacteria and, in a way, has adopted Knappenberger's students as well. The work the students have been performing over the last two years is being added to a database set up for undergraduates. Students in the biotechnology techniques class get a gene, determine the amino acid sequence and compare it to other known sequences in order to determine their function. This manual annotation of the computer-called genome is a double check to make sure the information in the database is correct. This year it turns out all the sequences are for enzymes.
Photo by Jenna Loughlin
Westfield Academy and Central School biology teacher Lon Knappenberger, standing left, has teamed up with Dr. Stephen Koury, a professor and research assistant in the school of medicine at the University at Buffalo, standing right, to offer students in his biotechnology techniques class the chance to annotate the genes of the bacteria Kytococcus sedentarius.
"They're as good as the undergrads at UB," Koury said during a recent trip to. "This isn't a trivial thing. ... They're doing real science. ... Once they start they really don't know what they might find."
Koury works with the Roswell Park Cancer Institute and is hoping to find organisms which make compounds that could be used to treat cancer. With a lot of genes to annotate, and not enough scientists, that is where WACS students come in. Last year Knappenberger's class of 38 annotated 18 genes and presented five posters at a symposium. One student even ended up having a hypothetical protein of unknown function even after months of attempting to determine what it did.
The high school biology teacher teamed up with the doctor after Knappenberger took a course from Koury. Koury offered this opportunity to biology teachers across Western New York, but Knappenberger was the only one who took him up on it, and, as far as Koury knows, is only one of two high school teachers across the country offering this to his students currently.
"I realized that there's a need for it," Knappenberger said. "They can go to school in Western New York, they can work in Western New York and they can make good money. They're not jobs that are going to be outsourced."
"There's a need for people who know how to do these kinds of things," Koury said. "It's a skill."
Another reason Knappenberger said he decided to take on this project was because he wanted to give his students something new, an experiment where the outcome is not necessarily known.
"They were a little intimidated at first, but they're into it now," Knappenberger said.
He complimented the WACS Board of Education for approving the biotechnology techniques class in the first place, perhaps based on the successful functional anatomy class Knappenberger also offers.
"They went for this not really fully understanding what it was," he said.
The two biologists hope to get some grant money to bring this project further and continue to have a long-term collaboration between UB and WACS regarding this project. Some grant reviews have come back saying this work is too difficult for high school students, but Knappenberger's students are proof this is not the case. From the group of students who worked on the project last year, three have decided to go into biotechnology in college.
"It changed their career goals," Knappenberger said.
With the arrival of stock culture of the Kytococcus bacteria at UB this year, the dream is if the students find something interesting for them to visit the University and get the chance to do hands-on wet lab experiments to confirm the discovery. Eventually, the work Knappenberger's students have done and are doing could become part of a publication describing the manual annotation process.
"I think he's pretty amazing," Koury said of Knappenberger. "I am very happy to have met Lon and really appreciate the effort he has put into this and how he works with his kids to get it across."