Studying Seagrass: Learning by Doing

Specimen of seagrass collected from the ocean is photographed and documented to preserve a piece of the original plant that provided each DNA sample

Last summer Anthony Finney, a living environment teacher at The Flushing International High School, went to Australia to work with scientists from James Cook University’s Waycott Lab on extracting DNA from seagrass. In the Fall of 2009, the members of Science Challenge Club, which he co-mentors with Jordan Wolf, began a project to extract DNA from seagrasses collected in Tampa and San Diego. The goal of the project is to assist in the creation of an international genetic database of these ocean plants. Their first samples were recently shipped to a collaborating university in Australia. This spring, club members will extend the project to study the genes of trees planted around the school. A tenth grader, Cristy Linares, from El Salvador, describes her experiences in the first phase of this effort.

Why we study seagrass

FIHS Science Club students use mortars and pestles to grind up blade of seagrass to crush the cells and release their DNA

We study seagrass DNA because we wanted to challenge ourselves. No one has ever studied seagrass in this way before, and the kind of experiments we are doing are usually done in universities, and we are high school students. The research helps us to learn new things. We did something like it in class with all the other students on our team. At that time, we were making copies of our own DNA to analyze. So when the time came to work with seagrass, we already knew how to use the appropriate tools. It was almost a review.

The experiment process

FIHS science club members Yuan Yuan, Cristy and Fernanda process seagrass samples

Alchan loads a DNA sample into a gel during a trip to the Harlem DNA lab

First, we started by crushing the seagrass with a mortar and pestle. Our goal was to break down the cells of the grass to release the DNA contained inside. We took the liquid that we ended up with and transport it into a tube using a micropipette, which is a very useful tool for scientists. The tube contained a chemical responsible for breaking down the membrane of the nucleus. We then spun the mixture in a centrifuge, an apparatus that spins the tubes with liquids and pushes down to the bottom of the tube the more condense part of the mixture. In this case the broken cells are the lightest in density and the genetic material, in other words the DNA, is the heaviest in density. After several more processes, we achieved our goal, which was to extract the DNA. Now we were ready to observe it, but had to make it visible by utilizing a gel electrophoresis. To conclude, we saw the DNA and sent it to the School of Marine and Tropical Biology at James Cook University, a lab in Australia. It made us feel satisfied and proud.

The success of the DNA extraction process is checked by using a gel, which detects the presence of material under UV light. The florescent streaks indicate the presence of DNA in the gel.

I think this extra work is a great opportunity to learn, because we are practicing working with DNA, which is a complex component of nature that is not easy to learn and study about. I hope I can used this new knowledge as an application for my future experiences.

Jean loads class cell samples into a centrifuge

Students use a micropipette to add a sample of DNA to a reaction tube

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