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Studying Human Disease Genes In Caenorhabditis Elegans: A Molecular Genetics Laboratory Project

Elisabeth A. Cox-Paulson, Theresa M. Grana, Michelle A. Harris, Janet M. Batzli

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Scientists routinely integrate information from various channels to explore topics under study. We designed a 4-wk undergraduate laboratory module that used a multifaceted approach to study a question in molecular genetics. Specifically, students investigated whether Caenorhabditis elegans can be a useful model system for studying genes associated with human disease. In a large-enrollment, sophomore-level laboratory course, groups of three to four students were assigned a gene associated with either breast cancer (brc-1), Wilson disease (cua-1), ovarian dysgenesis (fshr-1), or colon cancer (mlh-1). Students compared observable phenotypes of wild-type C. elegans and C. elegans with a homozygous deletion in the assigned gene. They confirmed the genetic deletion with nested polymerase chain reaction and performed a bioinformatics analysis to predict how the deletion would affect the encoded mRNA and protein. Students also performed RNA interference (RNAi) against their assigned gene and evaluated whether RNAi caused a phenotype similar to that of the genetic deletion. As a capstone activity, students prepared scientific posters in which they presented their data, evaluated whether C. elegans was a useful model system for studying their assigned genes, and proposed future directions. Assessment showed gains in understanding genotype versus phenotype, RNAi, common bioinformatics tools, and the utility of model organisms.