Lynx Lessons in the Lab
Publication Date: 5/11/2011
Standing in front of his classmates in the Molecular Biology 325 lab, Nick Brydon ’13 turns to his poster presentation and points to an evolutionary diagram depicting relationships among various biological species. “According to this sequence, our model suggests that humans are descendants of lynx,” Brydon jokes. The class laughs, but the point is well taken. He is referring to a specific protein that is expressed identically in both the lynx and the human.
The work done by Brydon and his lab group this semester was part of an ongoing Rhodes project in the molecular biology labs. Funded by a grant in 1999 to create a cDNA library (a collection of DNA molecules that represent the messenger RNAs expressed in tissues), the project has been led by Dr. Gary Lindquester, chair of the biology department. Each year, he works with a new group of student investigators to sequence parts of the genome (hereditary information encoded in DNA) of the lynx, which happens to be the Rhodes mascot.
When the project first started, students worked with a plant as their model genetic organism. Since that was a commonly used model in labs all over the country, Lindquester wanted to select a different one.
“I started thinking about something we could work on that would be unique and that would also have some interest to Rhodes students, and it dawned on me that we have this unique mascot, the lynx,” he says.
Lindquester was able to obtain cells from three of the four existing lynx species (Eurasian lynx, Canada lynx, Iberian lynx and North American bobcat) from the National Cancer Institute, which has freezers full of cells from all kinds of organisms. Although the Rhodes mascot is the Canada lynx, Lindquester chose to work with the Eurasian lynx, the largest of the species whose cells grow more easily.
Each semester, students first isolate DNA and send it to the Molecular Resource Center at the University of Tennessee Health and Science Center where results are sent back to the students in electronic DNA sequence files. Students then conduct a BLAST search, where a supercomputer at the National Institute of Health scans the lynx sequences against billions of other DNA sequences from other organisms. From this, students can identify sequence matches and begin to make comparisons.
“Students also can do different kinds of evolutionary comparisons, like how the lynx actin protein compares to the domestic cat or human actin,” explains Lindquester. “In some cases, they might also find a protein that is more structurally or functionally interesting.”
To date, students have looked at over 170 sequences. Because the lynx are on vulnerable, threatened and endangered lists, each year, new scientific knowledge about the species becomes even more valuable.
“When I chose the lynx, I wanted some organism that would be of particular interest and that would give students the ongoing ability to study new genes from an organism that wasn’t highly-studied,” adds Lindquester. “The lynx has served these purposes.”
(information compiled by Rhodes Student Associate Lucy Kellison ’13)