Students sat with their laptops and anxiously waited to educate their teachers about genetics during the Bio-Tech Fair at the Manhattan High School East Campus Wednesday and Thursday.
Jenny Karr, a second-year biology teacher at MHS, started a “biotechnology infoblitz” this semester to finish out the freshman biology genetics unit. She said for the last nine weeks, the students in her five classes have learned about genetics through muscular dystrophy and different technologies that could help cure or treat genetic disorders.
“I wanted them to consider how easy things are, how affordable things are, how they use the technology and all the ethical considerations,” Karr said.
Groups of two or three picked topics related to genetics that interested them and considered all parts of the assignment during their research. Several groups in the five classes picked de-extinction, Karr said.
“It was a really popular topic because one of the articles of inspiration I gave them was the idea of making ‘Jurassic World’ a reality,” she said. “So they were interested in the idea of bringing dinosaurs and even modern extinct animals back to reality.
Freshmen Zac Hirschey and Trey Sauder covered the idea of bringing the woolly mammoth back to life. They described the process of de-extinction as putting cells from an extinct animal inside a similar animal, in this case, woolly mammoth DNA into a female elephant egg. The animal would then give birth to the extinct animal. They said the problem with this method is the animal often died.
“When they did it in a mountain goat with a different (extinct) animal, it had seven babies and six of them died,” Hirschey said. “One lived, but its lungs collapsed, so they were able to take the lungs and change the problem some and make it good.”
The boys said it would be “unsmart” to bring the Tyrannosaurus rex back to life, but they picked the topic because it was interesting to them.
“It’s cool to think about making a real life ‘Jurassic Park,’” Sauder said.
Around the room Thursday morning, other projects included more research on de-extinction, genetically modified organisms and even “designer babies.”
Mikaela Penabaz and Emma Dieker, freshmen, discussed the possibility of gene editing in human children. They said they were interested because of the ethical divide and wanted to find more information about it.
“It seems more science fiction now, but it’s a real possibility in the future, so we wanted to be more educated,” Dieker said.
The girls said they found very few cases of human gene editing, but scientists have experimented on mice and monkeys. They said the science could have negative side-effects on society, like creating beautiful babies for vanity and disproportionately putting the lower classes at a disadvantage for diseases because they cannot afford to modify their children to be healthier. The pros, they said, may outweigh the cons.
“It can reduce the risk of diseases, and it is not a requirement, so parents would have a say in how far they go,” Dieker explained to the teachers who showed up to listen. “They can give their children genes they don’t carry that are good, or eliminate genes that could be carriers for diseases.”
They said ethically, the lines are blurred, as it could be dangerous, but society may not know until years after the first babies are modified and grow up.
Karr said she was excited with the work the students had done and hopes to make next year’s fair a little bigger and better.
“I’ve loved seeing teachers and staff take time out of their day to come listen to the students’ presentations,” she said. “So much of what students are working on outside of the classroom still stays at school, so even if it’s just one or two people, it means a lot that they care about the students’ learning to come listen.”