From water quality studies to genetic counseling, the acquisition of a DNA sequencer by Mercyhurst University marks an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate biological and medical research in the region.
Thanks to a $125,000 grant from the George I. Alden Trust and a $10,000 award from the Samuel P. Black Family Fund of the Erie Community Foundation, the Mercyhurst Biology Department has purchased an Illumina MiSeq DNA sequencing machine, which will be used for a variety of university-driven research projects, among them the ongoing investigation into bacterial and viral pathogens in the recreational waters of Lake Erie at Presque Isle State Park, said Biology Department Chair Steven Mauro, Ph.D., who wrote the grant proposal.
The DNA sequencer is a multi-faceted machine that allows for rapid and robust amplification of DNA sequences from any organism. For example, a single run of the machine would identify more than one million different bacterial or viral species in a gram of soil or drop of water. With that kind of power and speed, Mauro said, the applications are numerous and multidisciplinary in scope, spanning the fields of medicine, agriculture, aquaculture, forensic science and bioterrorism.
He said crime labs use DNA sequencing to analyze evidence from a crime scene to provide a definitive DNA fingerprint of a potential suspect. Health care centers use it in disease detection and in genetic counseling.
DNA sequencing technology of this caliber does not exist in the Erie region, Mauro said, necessitating that local universities, hospitals, environmental and other research-based organizations outsource their work to DNA sequencing companies. Mercyhurst, he said, intends to share its new resource with local institutions: free of charge in some instances, student training, for example; and, in other cases, through contract services.
“The significance of Mercyhurst obtaining this kind of equipment is that it is typically found at large medical institutions and major research universities, not at a small, independent, undergraduate university such as Mercyhurst,” Mauro said. “Receiving this grant speaks volumes to the reputation of the sciences at Mercyhurst and will enable us to further strengthen our research initiatives and increase career opportunities for our students and, to the extent we can, advance the scientific needs of our community.”
Currently, five full-time biology faculty members will use the machine for ongoing water quality studies in their respective fields, which include identification of bacterial and viral pathogens in recreational waters, investigation of the cause of tumor incidence in fish, physiological response of insects to global warming and exploration of soil conditions that stimulate vegetable production.
One professor from the chemistry and biochemistry department will use it to examine the interaction of organisms with chemicals of concern in the environment.
While more than a dozen Mercyhurst projects will be impacted, Mauro estimated that as many as 30 researchers and up to 100 undergraduate students in the area would receive training on the machine annually.
Tim Cooney, manager of basic science research at UPMC Hamot, anticipates being among them.
“We applaud Steve's effort to obtain grant money for this equipment,” Cooney said. “The acquisition of a DNA sequencer adds to this region's research armamentarium, further broadening the scope of studies we can conceptualize and implement. This can run the spectrum from bacterial speciation to using genotypic analysis to help disclose propensity for certain diseases or pathologic states.”