My research involves the development, implementation and assessment of authentic research experiences for undergraduate laboratories. The recent explosion of genomic sequence information, particularly for microbial organisms, presents unique opportunities to engage large numbers of undergraduate students in research projects. Building on my longtime research on S-adenosylmethionine (AdoMet)-dependent protein methylation, I have designed a curriculum in which students analyze the evolutionary conservation of enzymes involved in the synthesis of methionine, cysteine and AdoMet.
The project uses the budding yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae to analyze protein conservation. S. cerevisiae is an ideal model for class experiments because it is non-pathogenic, inexpensive, and easily cultured by undergraduate students. S. cerevisiae has also been extensively studied by yeast geneticists and its genome was the first eukaryotic genome to be decoded. As an offshoot of the Saccharomyces genome project, genome-wide collections of mutant strains and plasmid resources were made available to the community. Students use these strains and plasmids in complementation experiments to determine if enzyme functions have been conserved between S. cerevisiae and the fission yeast, Schizosaccharomyces pombe. Although the two species are separated by close to a billion years of evolution, students have already demonstrated the functional conservation of several genes involved in methionine synthesis. For more details, see the Pathways over Time project website.
Each semester, ~180 students enroll in the course, Investigations in Molecular Cell Biology. Our educational data over four semesters indicate that the course increases students' understanding of core biological concepts, proficiency in experimental design, ability to search online databases, familiarity with the primary scientific literature and proficiency in scientific communication.