The Duality of DNA Barcoding: A powerful technique that translates in the classroom

By Jeanne Garbarino, @JeanneGarb


DNA Barcoding workshop particpants with Harlem Lab Manager, Melissa Lee (2nd from right)
DNA Barcoding workshop particpants with Harlem Lab Manager, Melissa Lee (2nd from right)

Last week Rockefeller’s Science Outreach Program piloted a new workshop series for science teachers in collaboration with the Harlem DNA Lab of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL). Led by Harlem DNA Lab manager Melissa Lee, a dedicated group of science teachers learned how to use and apply DNA barcoding, and then discussed ways to implement it in the classroom.

DNA barcoding harnesses modern biology to identify and classify living things, and is markedly more efficient compared to traditional taxonomic classification methods. By studying the variations in short stretches of moderately conserved genes, scientists can quickly and objectively figure out the biological identity of anything that contains DNA. Being able to quickly identify a species is critical – the biodiversity on our planet is rapidly decreasing, and using unique genetic sequence identifiers (“barcodes”) can help to catalogue living things before they disappear forever. Moreover, this process can provide key insights into the mechanism of evolution through speciation.

In addition to advancing our understanding of biology, DNA barcoding can be performed with simple training, making it an increasingly popular science lab for middle and high school science classes. By transforming students into genetic detectives, DNA barcoding gives teachers an exciting means to talk about genetics and evolution through hands-on learning. However, the required equipment is not simple – or cheap – which can be a limiting factor.

To get around this, the Harlem DNA Lab has initiated a highly successful “footlocker program” that allows qualified teachers to borrow the necessary equipment to perform DNA barcoding in their science classrooms. For example, over 50 teams of middle and high school students have participated in the Urban Barcode Project, which is a NYC-wide science competition sponsored by Harlem DNA Lab with the dual aim of intellectually stimulating our youth while cataloging our local flora and fauna. Given this success (and some well-deserved funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation), CSHL has been able develop the infrastructure and biotechnology to replicate this program in schools across the US and abroad.

In addition to the Urban Barcode Project, many students have caused quite a stir in local communities by revealing certain truths about species misidentification. For instance, under the guidance of Mark Stoeckle, Senior Research Associate with Rockefeller’s Program for the Human Environment and DNA barcoding expert, two science sleuths from Trinity High School uncovered that tuna from local sushi markets was actually tilapia, and nile perch donned a red snapper label. Dubbed “Sushigate,” this little science project ended up educating consumers about what they were eating, and highlighted the power of allowing students to pursue their scientific curiosities.

As the keynote speaker, Stoeckle joined our workshop to discuss the inspiration and process behind Sughigate in more detail, and to present the underlying scientific principles involved in DNA barcoding technology. This, according to the educators, was a nice treat, and sparked several new ideas for conducting DNA barcoding in the classroom.

DNA barcoding is an excellent example of how basic science techniques can easily become fixtures in the K-12 science curriculum. CSHL has shown that through adept scientific breakdowns and streamlined protocols, “complicated” techniques can literally become child’s play.

The Rockefeller Science Outreach Program is looking forward to developing and facilitating more workshops like this – stay tuned!

For more information:

Lecture from Marck Stoeckle, MD, about DNA Barcoding. 

National Cockroach Project

Barcode of Life Project

International Barcode of Life Project (iBOL)

Urban Barcode Project

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