BIOL 150: Genetic Engineering and Society
For 12 non-science majors, this biology course provided a starting point to absorb scientific methods and realize the importance of science in other fields — and to clone DNA.
Humans have manipulated genes for thousands of years; for instance, to improve crops and to domesticate animals. Since the first successful DNA experiment in the 1970s, however, which transferred genes from one organism to another and gave rise to the term "genetic engineering," "we have advanced tremendously in the kindsof manipulations of DNA we can do and what we learn from those manipulations," said Nadia Ayoub. "Huge swaths of biology, whether molecular biology, cell biology, physiology or evolutionary biology, now rely on these methods of genetic engineering. It has dramatically changed our understanding of biology and our lives."
Colton Klein '15, a business administration and art history double major with a minor in studio art, found the discussions the most interesting part of the course. He and his fellow students prepared for class by reading articles in scholarly journals about such topics as genetically modified crops and patents on those crops, developing drugs and vaccinations, testing for genetic diseases, designer babies and a national database for DNA crime solving.
"We're starting to see the possibility of treatments for terrible diseases that have had no previous cure, just by changing the genetic formation of an individual by turning a gene off or on," said Ciera Wilson '17. "That's really exciting."
"One of the things I really like about teaching non-science majors this material is that they are very willing to discuss the moral, ethical, policy and legal implications and offer opinions," said Ayoub.
In her scientific research, Ayoub focuses on the genetic makeup of the silks produced by black widow spiders and their relatives. By mimicking the silks' genetic makeup, scientists hope to develop and mass- produce an array of cutting-edge biotech products for medical and military purposes-from micro- sutures to lightweight body armor.
The challenge for her students was to take some of the spider genes that Ayoub has identified as being candidates for silk synthesis and genetically engineer them to create a gene that can be sold to a biotech company.
Klein and his laboratory partner, Caleigh Wells '17, came up with the idea of using the spider-silk genes that encode proteins used to wrap the prey, break them down and make them easy to absorb, which could improve human health. "We could make them into silk strips that sit on your tongue, so if you have a condition such as heartburn, this will make it easier to digest your food," explained Wells. "It's certainly very creative," said Ayoub of the project. "I wanted them to understand some really basic facts about DNA and how DNA stores and transfers information-because it's really just a storage molecule-and how you can go from a storage molecule to a functional product."
"It's pretty cool that I learned how to clone DNA in this class," said Wilson, who worked on a different gene. "And I will never forget that I was able to do that."
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Washington and Lee fosters an atmosphere of self-discovery and an environment where anything is possible. From research theses to fully student-led theater productions, the University makes it easy for students to follow their dreams. Every year, students present research proposals to faculty and pursue hypotheses in both the sciences and the arts. Student research can occur both on campus and off, with research grants specifically designated for both areas.
With an average class size of 16, it's easy to find faculty advisors for both major projects and new clubs. Many students propose self-guided majors or pursue a double-or even triple-major, given the inclusive nature of a liberal arts education. This provides students with the opportunity to discover their passions, and also with the support to pursue them.
The University's four-week Spring Term is designed to be transformative. The courses offered during the term are set up with the dream-class concept in mind, remarkable examples of creative and expansive teaching: studying painting in Italy; the Freedom Rides throughout the South; the physics of music; code-breaking in mathematics and history; aerial dance; and many, many more. Rigorous internships and co-curricular programs like Mock Convention, the Venture Club and the Williams Investment Society immerse students in real-world learning situations that bring the concepts they've studied in the classroom to life.
At a Glance Facts and Figures
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