March 15, 2001
Vol. 20 No. 12

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    BioSci course takes undergraduates into world of human genetics research

    Jennifer Leovy
    News Office

    Earlier this quarter, when fourth-year Andrew Steele turned in his biology paper about estimating the number of genes in the human genome, little did he know that just two weeks later genetic researchers would unveil the blueprint of the 35,000 or so genes that make up a human being. Like a number of his classmates and many other biologists, Steele backed a theory that incorrectly estimated the number of human genes at twice the actual count.

    No matter though, because Steele and his fellow undergraduates now have the advantage of studying human genetics at a turning point––when scientific theory can be compared to reality. And unlike any Chicago undergraduates before them, they are enrolled in a new course that incorporates some of the latest scientific discoveries and advances in the field. Sparked by the Human Genome Project and the vast amounts of genome material available on public computer databases, Carole Ober, Professor in Human Genetics, conceived of and teaches BioSci 206, Human Molecular Genetics––a hands-on approach to understanding the complexity of mapping genes and diagnosing genetic diseases.

    “I want students to learn firsthand how to utilize this wealth of knowledge. Technology is now at a point where we can identify variation in a gene and sequence it in the classroom,” said Ober. “With the advances that have occurred in the last few years, College students can do in a week what would have taken a graduate student a year or more to complete.”

    Jose Quintans, Professor in Pathology and the College and Master of the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division, said the course is novel in higher education not only for the laboratory resources that have been committed to it, but also because of the students’ access to Ober, a top researcher who has dedicated her time to creating the course.

    “This course reflects our continued commitment to use cutting edge, research- caliber resources in undergraduate biology courses. With the current news about the human genome, it is very timely that we offer a state-of-the-art course in Human Genetics for Biology majors,” said Quintans.

    Students have examined strands of DNA, identifying single nucleotide polymorphisms––minute variations of the DNA sequence––and linking them to human diseases such as cystic fibrosis, breast cancer and sickle cell anemia.

    Working in Ober’s laboratory, students employed DHPLC, or denaturing high performance liquid chromatography, to identify sequence variation in human DNA fragments. In the Computer Learning Center, they used software applications (Sequencher© and BLAST) to analyhe sequence of their DNA fragments and then, searching a public database called GENBANK, learned the nature of the variation. Their final lab will examine the functional and clinical implications of variations in each gene, utilizing Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man, a database Ober refers to as “the O.E.D. of human genetic disease.”

    In addition to their papers on the size of the humane genome, the 20 students will learn how to make inferences about human evolution by examining variation in DNA sequences. They also have explored and written about ethical issues in human genetics, such as individual privacy and insurance coverage.

    “I am trying to make them savvy to the fact that there are ethical and social ramifications in this work. It is easy to forget that in the laboratory,” said Ober, whose research involves the genetic study of asthma in the Hutterites, a religious sect in South Dakota.

    Fourth-year Rebecca Stein took a few courses in philosophy and ethics before she enrolled in the course, but she did not connect that material to her biology courses until now.

    “I basically assumed that our increasing scientific knowledge was nothing more than a blessing, a hard-earned tool we would apply to benefit human health. However, the material in this course has made me realize that without a doubt, even technological advances that have the potential to make a great impact carry with them ethical problems,” said Stein. “Although this class hasn’t answered the moral questions raised by the gene sequencing project, I have begun to appreciate that they must be addressed by society as a whole, by the scientific community and by the individual conducting the research.”

    Although Ober did not include in her lesson plan the February announcements made by researchers with the Human Genome Project and Celera Genomics Group, she used the materials published respectively in the journals Nature and Science to finish the 10-week course.

    Ober said Chicago’s undergraduates impressed her with their ability to grasp such a complex subject. She has already considered adding a lab next year that includes original work linking mutations to disease.

    “It seems fitting that the University should offer this cutting-edge course in human genetics to undergraduates. After all, it is one of our alumni, James Watson, who was a major driving force behind the initiation of the Human Genome Project,” said Ober.