Salem Hills teams up with UVU for biotech research project

by Lorena Smithey
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Ten years ago, biology class looked like a dead frog splayed across a metal pan, the smell of formaldehyde wafting throughout the room. Now, with classes like Salem Hills High School's biotechnology course, offered as concurrent enrollment through UVU, biology has become so much more than frog dissections. "We are part of a new STEM grant in conjunction with UVU and SLCC to sequence the DNA of a type of bacteria, known as Halorubrum salsolis, that is only found in the Great Salt Lake," said Brad Shuler, Salem's Biotech teacher. Halorubrum salsolis got its name through a grade-school competition. According to Shuler, its name was chosen because it "sounds scientific" and quite literally means, "salty red thing that lives in salty environment with lots of sunlight." But name aside, H. salsolis is the subject of groundbreaking science. "It's a big unknown. We don't know that much about it," Shuler said. "The Great Salt Lake is unique and right now -- other than brine shrimp -- there is not a lot of commercial benefits of the lake. Some have suggested that once we figure out the biochemistry of the organism, it might be beneficial for a variety of purposes, whether it be biofuel or something else." Mapping H. salsolis's genome is an expensive task, however. According to Shuler, a grant from UVU in the amount of $55,000 has made this research possible for Utah Valley high school students. With the grant dispersed to 14 participating schools in Utah, half of the high schools are in Utah Valley, including Mountain View, Springville, Pleasant Grove, Timpanogos, Provo and Salem Hills. The grant money was used to purchase equipment that makes the research project possible. "Salem purchased equipment for DNA analysis. One is called a spectrophotometer; it measures concentrations of DNA and proteins. And thermocyclers for PCR reactions; these make small samples of DNA into big samples. It basically copies the DNA," Shuler said. "In class, we are in the process of doing the bacterial transformation of the cloned copies of the DNA. Eventually, they'll use the gene sequencer at UVU to complete the DNA analysis." Even with help from schools all over the county, this project may take as long as three to five years to complete. "It's a very painstaking process. There's millions of base-pairs to analyze and you can only do about a thousand base-pairs at a time," Shuler said. Students in biotech participate in many DNA-related projects. "They've had opportunities to extract their own DNA, to see what their genotype is," Shuler said. He went on to say that after spring break, the students will be testing their DNA for the "taster" gene. Apparently, only a fraction of people can taste a chemical called PTC, and Shuler's class will be testing their DNA to see who has the "taster" gene. Biotech differs significantly from a regular biology class. Shuler attests that biotech helps high school students because of the many connections it makes to possible careers. "It's lab-based," Shuler said. "It really requires technique and equipment that wouldn't be used in a regular bio class. It includes a lot of other fields like: pharmaceuticals, medical biotech, genetic engineering, crime-scene analysis, identity analysis and environmental biotech."