Lab brings alive the building blocks of life

POULSBO — In-class handouts and weathered textbooks took a back seat in Patti Webster’s North Kitsap High School biology classes Monday, as a lab experience vivified the origins of life.

Each year, Webster teaches students the ins and outs of deoxyribonucleic acid — more commonly known as DNA — but the opportunity to show students an actual strand of the complex biological code has never been an option.

With a little help from a Seattle biotechnology firm, however, Webster has given her current students a real glimpse at DNA, and one from their very own genetic make-up. Webster, who has been teaching science at the school for 21 years, said it’s always a challenge to keep the interest level up when discussing things like DNA.

“When I’m describing some of these things, I feel like they think I’m from outer space,” Webster said. “This is real — they can actually see it.”

Amgen, a Seattle-based company, donated $600 to the NKHS biology classes to conduct the experiment. The students first take fluid samples from the inside of their mouths, using a cotton swab. The ensuing process uses salt, incubation and other methods which isolate the DNA from all other contents found inside the mouth.

Finally, the DNA is stored inside a small amulet, which many students chose to wear as a necklace later in the school day.

The experience was an eye-opener that brought relevance to a complicated topic and gave the students confidence in their laboratory abilities.

“I always wondered what it might look like,” said NKHS sophomore Jessica Haag. “I got to see (it), and I was able to do (the experiment) right.”

“It was cool to have a visual example of what DNA looks like,” added NKHS sophomore Hanna Stevens. “We talk about it a lot but we don’t actually see it.”

Though the genetic code is often diagrammed in textbooks with color codes and explanations, the real thing turned out to be what looked like a clump of tiny, white threads.

“I thought it was going to be a lot smaller,” commented NKHS junior Katie Berger after the lab, at which point Webster pointed out that the DNA inside the students’ amulets contains more than two billion cells.

Webster said that staying up to date on a constantly changing field such as biology can be difficult, as discoveries are made often on a daily basis. But having a thread or two of one’s own DNA is becoming more important all the time, from advances in the field of criminology to conducting searches for long lost relatives.

“Parents (of the students) now have a copy of their own DNA,” Webster said. “You never know when you might need that.”

Movies and television have also glamorized new practical applications of DNA, such as its use in solving criminal investigations in the popular CBS series, “Crime Scene Investigation” and its numerous spin-offs.

“You see this stuff on CSI all the time,” remarked sophomore Nicole Giebel. “But you never actually see them (extract the DNA).”

And the students unanimously agreed that the school lab is one they’ll likely not forget.

“This is more personal,” said sophomore Lauren Wyckoff. “It means more than just another assignment.”

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