High school students to analyze plant genes for national project

Blacksburg, Va. -- Virginia Tech will lead the effort to enlist high school students across the nation to help scientists unravel the secrets of plant life.

The National Institutes of Health is providing $1.3 million during the next five years as Virginia Tech mobilizes high school students to become researchers through the Partnership for Research and Education in Plants, or PREP. The program will be the critical bridge linking the needs of university-based scientists and the until-now latent potential of high school science labs to provide answers concerning the roles played by the 25,500 genes of the "white mouse" of the plant world, Arabidopsis thaliana.

"The students will be doing a first-pass analysis," said Erin Dolan, outreach director for Virginia Tech's Fralin Biotechnology Center and the principal investigator for the project. "Their experiments will be repeated to confirm the results, but there is so much territory to cover that they will help scientists plot the direction of inquiry into the genome."

Arabidopsis has the distinction of being the first plant whose entire genome has been mapped. That map reveals the sequence and location of particular genes, but not necessarily what those genes do. Students involved in the PREP program will do the straightforward, though time-consuming, lab work to help generate that information, Dolan said.

What makes the partnership exciting and important is that scientists use Arabidopsis as a model to make predictions about other plants. Therefore, understanding the genetic instructions provided by specific genes in Arabidopsis can help scientists working on such projects as producing disease-resistant crops, plant-base pharmaceuticals, and other research involving a variety of plants.

"We think that students will become more involved in science when they see this project's connection to real-life research and the relevance of what they are doing in their school laboratory," Dola

Contact: Dr. Erin Dolan
Virginia Tech

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