Amplifying DNA and Isolating Proteins

January 18, 2017 | By Anne Kniggendorf (SF97)

Tutor Llyd Wells, right, goes over new lab equipment with students.

The laboratory portion of the St. John’s Program remains vivid in most Johnnies’ memories long after graduation. Alumni who forge careers in scientific fields frequently cite freshman lab as the catalyst that ignited their love of the scientific process.

But while Johnnies understand that the best way to open students’ minds to scientific inquiry is to read scientific primary texts and then conduct the original experiments contained therein, this can be a daunting thing to explain to others.

“It’s hard to make a case to the outside world that we’re relevant if our ‘science curriculum’ ends in 1960—even though we are,” says Santa Fe’s senior laboratory archon, tutor Llyd Wells.

Now, thanks to the generosity of two oceanographers at the University of Washington, Santa Fe’s senior lab program has moved well into the 21st century. Washington professors Jody Deming and John Baross have donated contemporary equipment to the Santa Fe campus’s laboratory, including three thermocyclers used for amplifying DNA and a Fast Protein (or Performance) Liquid Chromatography (FPLC).

Deming, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, says that while the equipment is slightly older than what’s used at Research One universities—the highest classification of doctoral university—it still functions to study DNA as it was designed to.

“When you can see something then it becomes really meaningful to you,” Deming says. “If it’s invisible, it’s really hard to grab the meaning of it.”

Deming and Baross understood the college’s lab needs through a connection with Wells. While at the University of Washington, Deming served as Wells’ PhD advisor and Baross served on his PhD committee. Deming knew Wells would do great things with the equipment.

“Give Llyd just a few pieces of equipment and he can show students things that will impress upon them how science works in a way that the written word or the spoken word just doesn’t do,” Deming says.

Wells is eager to start working with it.

“I’m going to try to get our laboratory curriculum to examine great texts up to the last decade,” he says, “but continue to do the same kind of work that we’ve always been doing, which is pursuing questions, whether they lead into a different scientific discipline or into philosophical problems, including ethics, epistemology and ontology.”

The most expensive and largest piece of equipment is the FPLC, which isolates proteins; Deming says it’s easier to concentrate DNA than it is to isolate a protein. This methodology will show students how enzymes work by breaking down proteins. The new equipment will be very useful for exploring later works experimentally.

“It’s hard to do much experimental work with a lot of modern biology if you don’t have a thermocycler,” Wells explains.

The equipment won’t be incorporated into senior lab until the next academic year, but students are already encountering not only the time-honored works of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel, but also the transformative works of late 20th century biology, including those leading to the discovery of non-Mendelian genetics and to the rediscovery of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, which St. John’s students have long read. The Annapolis campus acquired a thermocycler several years ago.

Wells says that the senior year curriculum is allowed to differ slightly on the two campuses. This is the only time the Program isn’t identical for all students and is allowable because students no longer move between the two locations as seniors.

Students will be able to use the equipment for evolutionary experimentation, DNA sequencing and cloning, as well as studying how nucleic acids compete with each other.

“It’ll open up all sorts of experimental avenues for us,” Wells says.