Celebrating Earth Day in the Biotechnology Classroom

Each year on April 22, the international community comes together to celebrate environmental protection in an event called “Earth Day”. During this celebration of our planet, researchers communicate about innovations in environmental science and green technologies. Now, many people may think that Earth Day is best celebrated as part of an environmental science curriculum, but innovations in biotechnology are furthering research in conservation science, biofuel development, crop sustainability, and more. In this blog post, we’ll highlight some of our favorite biotechnology experiments to help you make Earth Day a celebration in your classroom.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com
  • The Future of Biofuels – Alcohol Fermentation: The combustion of fossil fuels leads to the emission of harmful, polluting greenhouse gases which contribute to the overall trend of climate change. To achieve independence from fossil fuels, researchers are using yeast, algae, and other cells to create combustable fuels that can replace hydrocarbons. These technologies will allow us to create clean energy while reducing our dependance on non-renewal sources of energy. In this experiment, students act as biofuel engineers to experimentally determine the best conditions for biofuel production.
  • Safari Family Reunion: The interplay between animals and the environment is important to supporting and sustaining ecosystems. Animal breeding programs exist at zoos and other wildlife conservation facilities to increase the number of endangered animals in the wild. Many times, conservation biologists will attempt to release animals near their ancestral home. In this experiment, students use Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism Analysis (or RFLP Analysis) to explore the ways that conservation biologists use genetic data to identify the ancestral home of two lion cubs.
  • Water Quality Testing: Multiplex PCR Testing of Water Contaminants: Water pollution is a universal problem because clean water is essential for human health, aquatic life, and agriculture. Although drinking water in U.S. cities is generally safe, monitoring remains necessary because our water supply can still be contaminated by corrosion in aging water pipes and other environmental factors. One environmental threat to the water system is represented by bacteria and other microorganisms. We can test for these microbes using the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), a biotechnology technique that allows researchers to quickly create billions of copies of a specific region of DNA in vitro. This can be a tricky experiment to time correctly with hybrid schedules, so we did cover tips and tricks for experimental success in a previous blog post.
  • Identification of Genetically Modified Foods Using PCR: As the climate changes, farmers are finding that the growth of crops can be affected by higher temperatures, drought, severe weather events, and invasive insects. Genetic engineers have used biotechnology techniques to change the DNA sequence of some genes, and even to introduce genes from other organisms, in order to create crops that can thrive in the changing environment.

We have also discussed several topics in environmental science on our blog, and these posts can be used as supplemental content for your laboratory experience.

  • Let them Eat Seaweed: Exploring the effects of alternate food sources on cattle (a notorious producer of methane gas!)
  • How DNA will Travel: This post discusses the flow of genetic material — pairs well with our Safari Family Reunion experiment!
  • Saving species one PCR at a time: This article describes the way biology teachers can engage their students in conservation genetics research.