Saving species one PCR at a time

Ms. Patti Griest working with student using the Edvocycler 2

Tom Lavelle is a dedicated biology teacher at Seneca Valley Intermediate High School who was committed to bringing real-life research opportunities to his students. How could he connect the biology in his classroom to real-life research? How could he convince his students that they have the power to change the world? The answer was the Genetics Lab. 

The Genetics Lab started with two objectives, to “provide advanced training to gifted support students interested in the sciences and create real-life lab experiences for our entire student population”. This idea has blossomed into students partnering with elite research institutions to perform impactful research, such as that on the hellbender salamander.

The hellbender salamander is the only living giant salamander species of the genus Cryptobranchus. The hellbender salamander is a resident of North America and ranges from New York to Tennessee. However, the population of hellbender salamanders has declined by 80% over the past few decades due to disease, stream sedimentation, and pollution. The Columbus Zoo Conservation Park, The Wilds, is working with teams all over the hellbender’s range to survey the salamanders, learn about their habitats, and reintroduce them to certain areas. 

The Hellbender Salamander

Tom Lavelle’s Genetics Lab is one of these collaborators. The students at Seneca Valley Intermediate High School are using environmental DNA (eDNA) surveillance to uncover the location and distribution of hellbender salamanders in their area. Students take water samples from creeks, purify the DNA, and determine whether or not hellbender salamanders are present. With eDNA, hellbender salamanders can be identified without disturbing their habitat. Instead of doing things like lifting the rocks that they live under, students can simply sample the surrounding water. They can then take the water and, using reagents (primers) specific to the hellbender salamander, amplify the DNA using the Edvocycler 2 PCR machine. Students can then visualize which samples tested positive for hellbender salamanders using gel electrophoresis. With this research, students are actively participating in the protection of the hellbender salamander and helping it to re-occupy the spaces it has been forced out of.

Of course, the Genetics Lab isn’t stopping at salamanders. They have also begun to partner with Ohio State University and the Columbus Zoo Freshwater Mollusk Facility to perform eDNA studies on threatened freshwater bivalves. Here at Edvotek, we’re sure that the Genetics Lab at Seneca Valley Intermediate High School will continue to grow and be successful, and we’re happy to be providing equipment to help them change the world. 

“As is easily recognized, [our] genetics lab has grown and shown to be successful. It is important to point out that without the excellent technology made available by Edvotek, our Genetics Lab would be a small shadow of its present self.”

*The Genetics Lab would like to thank its generous partners and sponsors:

  • Western Pennsylvania Conservancy
  • Columbus Zoo
  • The Wilds
  • First Energy
  • Society for Science and the Public
  • Seneca Valley Foundation
  • The Ohio State University
  • The Cooper Institute of the University of Pittsburgh