SIOUX CITY -- DNA fingerprinting was first used as evidence in a criminal investigation in the United Kingdom in 1987 to identify, arrest and subsequently convict Colin Pitchfork of the rape and murder of two 15-year-old girls.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Morningside College students tried out agarose gel electrophoresis, a technique used to separate DNA fragments by size, in assistant biology professor Chad Leugers' May term course, "Medical Mysteries," which ran from May 13 through Friday.
May term is an opportunity for students to take a class that is normally not offered. Some May term courses have included the mathematics of baseball statistics and the science of cooking, or the courses have involved foreign and domestic travel.
The last time Leugers taught a May term course, he traveled with students to Virginia and the Carolinas for whitewater kayaking. This year, he decided he wanted to stay on campus and offer a course that tied into his research.
"It's meant to be aimed at students who don't necessarily know much about science," he said. "I have a wide range of people in there that are art, English or business majors. They have not had much biology at all, so I'm trying to make it interesting and kind of lighter on the gory details whenever possible."
Gabbie Tiili, a senior majoring in nonprofit management, watched as Katie Kirby, a sophomore biochemistry major, carefully loaded a mixture of DNA, dye and water into wells of gel.
"I just like doing the lab work. I'm more of a hands-on person," Tiili said.
When Tiili and Kirby applied an electric current to the gel, the DNA fragments, which appeared as blue bars, moved across the gel. They learned that shorter pieces of DNA traveled through the pores of the gel matrix faster than longer ones.
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"You can use this technique for a lot of different things," Leugers said. "I use it all the time in my research, mainly for purifying amounts of particular genes that I’m going to study in the cells that I grow downstairs. You can also use it to identify whether a person with a rare medical condition has something wrong with their genes or not."
The course challenges students' critical thinking skills. Leugers asked them to solve the mystery of a woman whose genetic makeup didn't match that of the two sons she gave birth to.
"They had to come up with different ideas of what might be the cause," Leugers said of the reason behind the "mistaken maternity." "Eventually, they find out that she is actually a genetic chimera. When she was an embryo, there was a fraternal twin in her mom's womb with her and they fused together into one baby, so her body is a mixture of two people."
The students also hypothesized about why a slew of male, African American infants, all living within the same area in Cleveland, were getting sick. The problem wasn't the formula they were being fed, but the mold growing in their homes from water damage.
"I had them look at lots of specimens of different types of fungi and parasites under the microscope," he said.
Leugers even introduced phrenology, a pseudoscience that involves measuring the bumps on the skull to predict personality traits, to his class and discussed CRISPR, a powerful gene editing tool.
"I want everybody to know about (CRISPR), because this is something everybody will be voting on and hearing about and deciding about in the next 10, 20, 30 years, whether you're a biologist or not," he said. "That's something that everyone should care about because of the potential it has to do good and the potential it has to be used in the wrong way."