Duquesne Developing Gene Gun to Help Teach Genetics

Posted on August 31, 2016

A team of student researchers from the master's program in biotechnology and the biomedical engineering (BME) program has been working to develop a gene gun that the Citizen Science Lab (CSL) can use to teach high school students about simple genetic engineering.

Under the supervision of Dr. Alan Seadler, associate academic vice president for research, and Dr. John Viator, director of the biomedical engineering program, the students are designing and building a gene gun that injects micro particles-usually gold or tungsten-at speeds high enough to penetrate the cells of living organisms. The device uses compressed gas, much like an air rifle. In this case, though, it uses helium to propel particles that can alter the DNA of cells and plant tissue.

The students are using DNA structures called plasmids, which contain a gene for a fluorescent protein, to create mushrooms that glow fluorescent green under a black light. If the students are successful, the protein will be produced within the mushroom and the cells will glow. The team expects to complete the gene gun later this semester.

Seadler, Viator and their students are doing this work in order to eventually hand the gene gun over to CSL to teach high school students about genetics and allow them to conduct their own experiments. The project is also providing the Duquesne students with industry experience that will serve them after graduation.

"We picked this model since it is a low risk way to instruct high school students about some of the concepts of biotechnology," said Seadler. "It also serves to build a working relationship between the biomedical engineering and biotechnology programs. The BME students get the opportunity to build a device that has biological significance and the biotech students are working on what amounts to a real example of technical product development with our customers being the staff and students of the Citizen Science Lab."

The CSL, which is Pittsburgh's first and only community life sciences laboratory, is a collaboration that started with foundation funding by Duquesne University and Urban Innovation 21. Its mission is to enrich the scientific appreciation of children and teens through hands-on experiences in after-school, weekend and summer programs. In addition, it encourages college students in their science and technology career preparations and welcomes adult learners.

This research is supported by a grant from the Grable Foundation and a US Economic Development Administration grant in conjunction with the Duquesne Center for Green Industries.