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Students introduced to 'growing' edge of cloning

At left, teacher Cathy Nitchman guides Miranda Johnson, an eighth-grader at CK Junior High’s Magnet School, through the process of gene cloning during a class science project on Wednesday, Jan. 8. - Photo by Kelly Everett
At left, teacher Cathy Nitchman guides Miranda Johnson, an eighth-grader at CK Junior High’s Magnet School, through the process of gene cloning during a class science project on Wednesday, Jan. 8.
— image credit: Photo by Kelly Everett

‘It’s alive! It’s ALIVE!’

— Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein in the ’30s film classic

No they are not creating monsters, but advanced-placement students in CK schools are conducting cloning experiments even as we speak.

During the first week of school after winter break, CK Junior High science teacher Cathy Nitchman’s students used one of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Biotech Kits to create a different kind of life.

Students spliced a small fragment of DNA into a DNA “circle” of E.coli bacteria — then grew the bacteria to see if their splice was successful.

Almost like creating a new life form — on a very simple scale.

(The E.coli utilized is a harmless strain, commonly used by scientists, and not the deadly variety found in food poisoning.)

Students were in the lab on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, Jan. 7, 8 and 10. This is the second time kids have been able to conduct the hands-on (with gloves) experiment this year.

“This school serves as a magnet program for talented kids. It gives them a chance to get a good look at such science,” said Principal Barb Gilchrist. She said 60 seventh- and eighth-graders attend the magnet program.

Nitchman was speaking clearly about how the procedure works to the 16-member class:

“...You put it in the calcium chloride to give it a negative charge,” she said of tiny test tubes holding the gene fragments. “We must now create a positive charge for the plasmids to stick to the E.coli. The more we shock them, the more likely they’ll expand with the heat, and bond.”

Plasmids are the small circles of DNA supplied by Fred Hutchinson to act as receivers of dyed fragments of DNA. If all goes well, the new blue-dyed string will sprout about a million or so blue E.coli within 24 hours.

The children shocked the contents of their test tubes — “But only for 90 seconds, after that they may be destroyed!” cautioned Nitchman. The kids then placed their samples in ice to shrink the string of DNA and encourage bonding.

Nitchman attended training last summer to qualify to teach the delicate procedure. She will hold the labs three times during the school year.

It’s all part of Fred Hutchinson’s rotating program to de-mystify and introduce students to the wonders of gene manipulation. This is the second time Nitchman’s students have done the DNA experiment this year.

“Such techniques are already being used to manufacture insulin for diabetics,” Nitchman said during a break in the class. “It’s the same principle, you splice into E.coli a fragment of DNA that produces insulin ... before long, you’ve got billions of plasmids producing plenty of insulin.

“Next week we’ll be discussing the bio-ethics of such work — is it ethical to clone a human being?”

Bacteria such as E.coli are used in the experiments because they’re so simple, she explained. They have no nucleus and no chromosomes. By comparison, humans have a nucleus in each cell and 46 chromosomes. It’s considerably more complex.

The teacher said UW scientists will be speaking to the kids on human and animal research Jan. 24. The parent of one of the students, Dr. Pekow, will be the presenter.

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