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Geneva Adopts a Genome

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A team of Geneva College Biology and Chemistry faculty led by Dr. David Essig, professor of biology, has been selected by the Education Department at the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute (JGI) to collaborate in The Undergraduate Research Program in Microbial Genome Annotation.

Geneva's team was one of 20 chosen in a national competition, which included large universities as well as small colleges. Each institution has "adopted" a specific type of bacteria or archea to study, providing real-world research experience for their students and valuable new information for the scientific community.

One of the long-range goals of the JGI is to create a Genomic Encyclopedia of Bacteria and Archea (GEBA). This "Adopt a GEBA Genome" Education Program makes available a selection of complete DNA sequences from genomes of bacterial and archeal organisms for use in undergraduate courses.

Genomes contain the complete hereditary information of organisms, and archea belong to a particular group of single-celled microorganisms. Understanding the genome of these microorganisms ideally provides a unifying thread for concepts across the life sciences curriculum.

"Think of the genome as a book of sentences which guide the structures and functions of an organism in its environment," Essig explains. "Each sentence is a unique instructional code and corresponds to the concept of a gene. Genes direct the assembly of proteins which are the working molecules in cells. With recent advances in the computer software, it is possible to locate the genes and to predict the function of their proteins and even decide which proteins work together in a cell to form a pathway of reactions."

The Geneva team adopted the bacteria Pedobacter heparinus genome. This is a soil bacterium that has not been well studied and so the likelihood of exciting discoveries and interesting variations is high.

One member of the team, Professor of Biology Dr. Daryl Sas, is interested in having students explore the genome of Pedobacter heparinus for evidence of an enzyme pathway for production of a new antibiotic. Another faculty member would like to analzye the energy-producing enzyme pathways in this bacterium.

Research will begin this semester, as Essig teaches a class in Genomics. However, full exploration of the Pedobacter heparinus genome will take three to four years and will be spread across the curriculum in other courses like biochemistry, molecular biology, ecology and microbiology.

"Students in these classes will reap a wide range of educational benefits," Essig says. "They will be able to make connections across an otherwise diverse curriculum, learning to manage large amounts of data, improving their reasoning skills and embracing scientific discovery directly."