The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

February 1, 2013

Science class to analyze DNA

Look for answers on ‘mystery meat’


DANVILLE — Ever wonder if a beloved pet is a purebred or what exactly is in that package of ground meat?

Starting on Monday, Doug Mathias’ New Tech biology students at Danville High School will have the rare opportunity to use sophisticated scientific equipment to extract DNA and analyze the DNA sequence — or genetic barcode — to find out the genetic makeup of an animal or meat.

DHS has been selected as one of only six schools in the nation to pilot this genetics course that is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“I don’t know that the students realize how lucky they are to be doing this,” Mathias said, adding that the course is also being piloted in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Cleveland.

“The only other schools that could afford to do this are universities,” he said.

The Seattle-based pilot course encourages problem-based learning — a new way for students to learn in the 21st century — which is the basis of DHS’ New Tech program.

“You’re trying to solve problems,” Mathias explained of the objective. “This is what everything is going to with Common Core Standards.”

During the pilot course next week, Mathias’ students will study genetics and conduct a six-day lab on barcoding different types of animals.

The labs will consist of students:

“It sounds like science fiction: barcoding all the animals to see where they fit in the animal kingdom,” Mathias said.

But that is what will take place in Mathias’ classroom next week.

“The DNA barcode will tell us what the animal is,” he said.

“What got them all started was the article about (the United Kingdom) selling horse meat in their hamburger,” he said of his students. “Some of the kids are very excited about it.

“I told the kids, ‘I want you to be original,’ so one of them is going to use cotton to swab the inside of their dog’s cheek because you can see the breed of the dog (with the DNA barcode),” he said.

Recently, a hawk or a falcon was in the courtyard near Principal Mark Neil’s office feasting on some vermin. Afterward, Mathias and his students retrieved some of the predatory bird’s feathers and the remnants of the rat or mouse, which Mathias dubbed as “mystery meat.”

The feathers and mystery meat will undergo DNA barcoding next week to determine the type of bird and what it was eating.

Mathias said he also will bring in a few food items he’s curious about — such as imitation crab meat and his dog’s special lamb-and-rice dog food that lists chicken as an ingredient — to be tested.

“We’ll take the DNA and on the third day (of the labs), we’ll use a machine to duplicate the DNA over and over again,” he said.

The DNA eventually will be separated into waves like a barcode so it can be read.