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New DNA lab unveiled, bioinformatics major announced

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Students Maggie Matthews, Jessica Wright

Mercyhurst University cuts the ribbon Wednesday, Feb. 18, on what is being heralded as a regional asset, a state-of-the-art DNA sequencing center designed to educate students and the public on the mysteries of biotechnology, genetic engineering and advances in DNA.

The half-million-dollar science lab – the Orris C. Hirtzel and Beatrice Dewey Hirtzel DNA Sequencing Center – will offer valuable hands-on learning experiences for Mercyhurst’s science students and create the opportunity to share sophisticated DNA technology with the region’s research community.

DNA sequencing technology in northwestern Pennsylvania is not readily accessible, frequently necessitating that local universities, hospitals, environmental and other research-based organizations outsource their work to DNA sequencing companies, said Phyllis Kuhn, Ph.D., president of Lake Erie Research Institute, who helped facilitate grant funding for the lab. Kuhn will attend Wednesday’s 4:30 p.m. dedication in Zurn Hall, along with members of the Mercyhurst community and invited guests.

“The collaboration represents a unique community effort to provide the region with sophisticated equipment that will enhance its health and safety, provide educational experiences for students and research opportunities for students, professors and physicians,” Kuhn said.

The center is equipped with two DNA sequencers – multi-faceted machines that allow for rapid and robust amplification of DNA sequences from any organism with applications spanning the fields of medicine (disease detection/genetic counseling), agriculture, aquaculture, veterinary science, forensic science and bioterrorism, said Mike Elnitsky, Ph.D., chair of the university’s biology department.

Numerous DNA sequencing studies are already planned at Mercyhurst, among them a project to monitor the water quality of Erie County waterways, including Lake Erie; a study to identify Lyme disease-carrying ticks at Presque Isle State Park; and an analysis of Erie County soils for the presence of a disease-causing parasite known as Toxoplasma gondii.

In addition, the center is the impetus for a new major to be launched at Mercyhurst in the fall – bioinformatics. By merging biology, computer science and information technology, bioinformatics combines mathematics and computers to gain a better understanding of biological processes and  interpret genomic data.

“Students pursuing a major in bioinformatics have a wonderful opportunity to not only gain a background in biology, but to also establish a wide variety of computing skills that are highly sought after in business and industry,” said Chad Redmond, Ph.D., associate dean of the Tom Ridge School of Intelligence Studies and Information Science. 

Plans for Mercyhurst’s new DNA lab began in 2013 when the university purchased an Illumina MiSeq DNA sequencing machine courtesy of a $125,000 grant from the George I. Alden Trust. More recently, Mercyhurst collaborated with the Lake Erie Research Institute in securing two additional grants: $150,000 from The Orris C. Hirtzel and Beatrice Dewey Hirtzel Memorial Foundation for an ABI DNA sequencer, and $10,000 from the Black Family Foundation through the Erie Community Foundation for additional supplies.

“Mercyhurst is grateful to the Alden Trust, Hirtzel Foundation and Black Family Foundation for their generosity,” said Mercyhurst President Tom Gamble, Ph.D. “Their investment is a testament to the pioneering reputation of the sciences at Mercyhurst and provides the opportunity for us to strengthen our research initiatives, expand career opportunities for our students and, ultimately, advance the scientific needs of our community.” 

Construction of Mercyhurst’s lab was made possible by the generous donation of an anonymous donor, and the university has agreed to in-kind support in the form of staff, maintenance and insurance. All told, the project is estimated at $594,000.

Here are some of the Mercyhurst projects that will utilize the DNA center:


  • Mercyhurst faculty and student researchers have captured hundreds of deer ticks from Presque Isle State Park as part of a long-term scientific study in which they will perform DNA testing to identify what percentage of the ticks carry Lyme disease, a bacterial infection that can cause significant health problems in humans if left untreated. The end-game, according to faculty researcher Sara Turner, Ph.D., is to consider mitigation strategies intended to help protect the estimated four million local residents and tourists who visit the park each year.

    Another project, led by Michael Foulk, Ph.D., uses DNA sequencing to monitor water quality in the waterways around Erie County, including Lake Erie. Foulk and his students will collect water samples, sequence the genomes of all of the organisms in the samples, then identify and quantify the microorganisms present.  Foulk will also study the DNA amplification in the fungus fly, Sciara coprophila, which may have applications in cancer research.

  • With a host of cross disciplinary applications, the DNA lab will also be utilized by the university’s public health department. Researchers there intend to study Erie County soils for the presence of the disease-causing parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, according to Thomas B. Cook, Ph.D., assistant professor of public health.

    “Though rare, infection with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii is a growing concern globally, and on the CDC's list of ‘neglected infectious diseases,’” Cook said. “We are determining if the parasite is present in soils in and around Erie County and, if so, are there ways to prevent its spread into places of frequent human exposure (children's playgrounds, beaches, etc). This would be the first attempt to address the question of its presence in the U.S. in recreational spaces.”

    In forensic science, DNA sequencing is used to analyze DNA evidence from a crime scene to provide a definitive DNA fingerprint of a potential suspect. Mercyhurst’s center was built with the capability to function as a crime lab, and seeking certification is a future consideration. For now, forensics students will have the opportunity to work directly with equipment that they would expect to see in a professional capacity after they graduate. The lab will afford them “a great hands-on experience and an important addition to their résumé,” said Dennis Dirkmaat, Ph.D., chair of applied forensic sciences at Mercyhurst.