NMU undergraduate students are using cutting-edge DNA sequencing techniques to research the genetic diversity of blue wildebeest populations in Zambia and southern Africa. The project is one of two proposals selected to receive seed money in the inaugural year of the Northern PRIME Fund, an internal funding mechanism that provides up to $20,000 for substantive, interdisciplinary research that engages students.
Three faculty members are involved in the project: Alec Lindsay, who has led student groups to Zambia, and Katherine Teeter, both from biology; and Jeff Horn from mathematics and computer science. They are collaborating with the Zambian Carnivore Programme, which provided blue wildebeest tissue samples.
“There’s been very little genetic analysis related to this species,” said Teeter. “Wildebeest are a primary food source for carnivores, but poaching, land use and civil war in the region have all impacted their population and migratory patterns. Our students are establishing a baseline of genetic diversity that will help inform conservation efforts. They’re also gaining experience in the emerging field of bioinformatics.”
Biology major Natalie Yeck of Muskegon said, “It’s nice to get into the lab and do something long-term, not just one or two weeks. It’s also rewarding to know the work you’re doing will have a real impact in some part of the world.”
The students are using massively parallel DNA sequencing techniques, which allow them to sample thousands of small sections of the genomes of a number of individual wildebeest and sequence them all at once.
“This method produces very large data files at one time,” Teeter added. “They can’t be managed on standard desktop or laptop computers. That’s where Jeff Horn and his students come in. They can use their expertise and computing facilities to help us analyze the data. These bioinformatics analyses are a critical component of the project. We will run the sequencing in late spring or early summer. It will take one to two years to complete the analyses.”
The Northern PRIME fund—the acronym stands for Progressive Research and Innovative Mutual Exploration—was initiated by Erica Goff, NMU grants and contracts director. It is modeled after the MCubed seed-funding program at the University of Michigan.
“There is a lot of competition for external funding and sponsors want proof that the project is feasible before they commit resources to it,” Goff said. “There’s also more emphasis on innovative, interdisciplinary work. It’s extremely rare now to see substantial awards from the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation go to a single investigator or a single-discipline project. The world doesn’t function in those types of silos. It’s more about collaborative approaches with high impact.”
PRIME aligns with the direction external funding is heading. Each project will result in at least one quantifiable deliverable such as a publication, preliminary data set or art display that can be used as leverage in applying to external agencies. And each must involve teams of two or three faculty/staff from different disciplines along with a minimum of two students.
The second project to secure PRIME support in the first round is a study to determine whether there is a correlation between the incidence of staph infections and pneumococcal conjugate vaccinations in adults. That project will be featured in a future issue of Campus Connect.
The application deadline for the second round of Northern PRIME Fund support is July 1. For more information, visit http://commons.nmu.edu/prime/.