Fishing for Genes

By Beacon Staff

It began inside the laboratory at Flathead Valley Community College with a small group of biology students and a frozen fish.

A year later, two of those students have just returned from Washington, D.C., where they presented their discovery: the first-ever isolated gene of a muscle protein in Westslope cutthroat trout.

Justin Vetch, of Columbia Falls, and Lydia Sykora, of Whitefish, were classmates in FVCC’s new biotechnology program and among 50 students selected nationwide to attend a recent conference hosted by the National Science Foundation.

The local students unveiled the breakthrough results of their class’s research project, titled “Fishing for Genes,” in front of world-renowned scholars and representatives from the biotech industry that can now use FVCC’s data for future experiments.
“It felt really good to be on the cutting edge from a community college,” Vetch said.

In the summer of 2011, FVCC was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to enhance rural education opportunities in the rapidly expanding realm of biotechnology. Ruth Wrightsman, a biology professor at the community college, designed the two-year transfer program, which launched last year and now serves as a pipeline for students graduating on to four-year institutions, such as Montana State University.

FVCC is the only community college in the state with a biotechnology program.

Biotechnology is the study of cellular and molecular biology. It factors into an array of research and professional fields, including medicine, agriculture and forensics.

Constant innovations in technology have spurred rapid growth among biotech companies and academics that are seeking solutions to many of the world’s perpetual dilemmas. Battling cancer; restoring soil and water quality; analyzing a crime scene — these answers and more are hidden somewhere in the complex world of bioscience.

For their inaugural project in the new program, Wrightsman and her students turned their attention to Westslope cutthroat trout, a fish species of particular interest in this corner of the state but without much genomic analysis.

Westslope trout are one of two subspecies of native cutthroat trout in Montana. The fish can provide an indicator of the entire ecosystem’s health and biologists have kept a close eye on the species, which has been threatened by hybridization with rainbow trout and Yellowstone cutthroat and habitat loss. Some research has uncovered the genetic diversity of Westslope, but the fish’s overall gene sequence remains largely a mystery.

Using the school’s new upgraded lab equipment, the class dissected a six-week old Westslope from the Creston Fish Hatchery and began isolating RNA from barely three grams of white muscle tissue.

Their research mimicked that of any graduate institution’s, revolving around the lab instead of hovering over a textbook.

“It was amazing because it basically felt like graduate-level work,” Vetch said. “We were working on a hard project and learned all the lab equipment.”

In the end, the students successfully isolated and cloned the Westslope’s myosin light chain gene, the most common protein in animal muscle cells.

“We now have the sequence because of our work and it can be uploaded to the national database and other scientists can access that information and use it for their experiments,” Vetch said.

Vetch, who plans to carry his biotech aspirations to MSU and beyond, and Sykora, who is now studying forensics at the University of Montana, presented FVCC’s findings at the Advanced Technology Education Principal Investigators Conference Oct. 23-25 in D.C.

“It was pretty amazing,” Vetch said. “A lot of people were blown away that we had the ability to do this at a two-year school. It felt good to wow people.”

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