New Learning Opportunities Are in the DNA

OGDEN, Utah – Four Weber State University science professors recently attended a workshop on a national genome research project, which could soon lead to new educational opportunities for their students.

Microbiology professors Matthew Domek, Craig Oberg and Michele Zwolinski, along with mathematician Maomao Cai were selected to attend a two-day Undergraduate Microbial Genome Annotation Program workshop at the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (JGI) in Walnut Creek, Calif., held Jan. 22 & 23.

The education program has developed a set of tools and faculty training modules to help professors integrate microbial genome annotation across the microbiology curriculum.

Workshop participants learn how to decode microbial genomes—the genetic information that makes up a cell and controls what it does—and how to enter their findings into a national database. The goal is to enlist the help of university faculty and undergraduate students across the country in identifying DNA sequences in microorganisms and figure out what each genome tells the cell to do.

The WSU faculty members are one of 22 to 24 groups that make up the first cohort in this new JGI program. Twelve colleges participated in the pilot phase of the program.

Upon completion of the workshop, Zwolinski and her colleagues will adopt a genome that will be studied and researched by WSU microbiology faculty and students. They also will be able to teach others how to decode genomes.

“A typical microorganism, like E. coli, has over four million pieces or letters in its genome,” Zwolinski said. “That will give us plenty of material for our students to work with.”

Zwolinski plans to incorporate these genome research opportunities into her course curriculum as early as fall of 2009.

“Introductory level students might help identify the genomes,” Zwolinski said. “Then we might have students in upper-level courses research how that DNA sequence instructs the cell, or what portion of the cell it affects.”  

In addition to microbiology expertise, the research involves computer science and statistics, providing learning opportunities for students in mathematics as well.

The JGI’s long-term goal is to expand the program nationally, with students participating in the annotation of genomes while they learn the fundamentals of bioinformatics and genomics.

Genome sequencing already has revolutionized the understanding of microorganisms and the role they play in important processes, including pathogenesis; energy production; bioremediation; global nutrient cycles; and the origins, evolution and diversity of life.

“What’s really exciting is our students will be among the first in the nation to take part in and contribute to this developing research project,” Zwolinski said.

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Michele Zwolinski, assistant microbiology professor
801-626-7795 •

John Kowalewski, director of Media Relations
801-626-7212 •