Many students believe their heritage includes only what they have been told, but little do they know Texas Wesleyan’s biology department offers them the opportunity to trace back their heritage farther than they could imagine.
Dr. Bruce Benz, professor and chair of biology at Texas Wesleyan, involves his students in experiments that open up their minds to biology. In his plants and human affairs biology class, there is one experiment he is known for in particular; which is the DNA sequencing of students that can trace back the students’ descendants .
Benz said he has done this experiment in two of his classes, Anthropology and Plants and Human Affairs. It has been most successful in the Plants an Human Affairs class.
Benz said there are two objectives when performing this experiment.
“The first is a simple evaluation of Hardy Weinberg equilibrium to demonstrate evolutionary change,” Benz said. “The second is to provide students the opportunity to determine their racial heritage and geographic origin by tracing descent through the maternal line.”
The experiment consists of extracting DNA with a swab from cheek to cheek by the students, then the mitochondrial part of the DNA is amplified and taken to ETON bioscience lab to be sequenced. After it has been sequenced, it comes back to the students in order for them to find out where their ancestors descended.
Benz said the sequencing can also be done in the lab at Texas Wesleyan, but the results take much longer than at ETO bioscience lab.
Benz said sometimes the experiment is unsuccessful because of the DNA swabbing performed by the students. Benz said many students have to do the swabbing more than once in order to get a good sample of DNA.
“We could do the extraction in different ways, we could do a blood draw or a quick blood spot but that has problems too. I mean, it is a bio-hazard in a big way. We would hate to pay for disposal if we didn’t have to. Second, not everyone likes to get their finger stuck,” Benz said.
Benz said he is working on a new protocol so he is able to do this particular experiment in his other classes, and so will the other faculty in the department. Benz said the faculty including himself would like to make it a widely available laboratory experiment.
“University of California at Berkley tried to do it for their entire freshman class and ran into all sort of administration problems, and that’s because their freshmen class is 7,000 students,” Benz said. “It would be difficult even if it was possible in the best of all words to get that done right.”
Amanda Moten, senior history major, said she is excited to get the results of her DNA sequencing back.
“I genuinely look forward to learning more about my family’s history as well,” Moten said. “I find it amazing that we have classes available that literally involve us as students, in the real world applications of science.”
Moten said this course and Benz have enhanced her understanding and appreciation for how vast and incredible the field of science is.
Benz said Wesleyan President Fred Slabach had his DNA sequenced as well. Benz said Slabach’s DNA was sequenced within two weeks.
“I told him what the students were doing. I suggested that my students extract his DNA to be sequenced, and he chuckled,” Benz said. “I don’t think he thought I was serious. So that summer I sent my students over to him and asked them to get a swab [of DNA] from President Slabach, and he didn’t say no.”
Slabach said the best part of the experiment to him, was getting a chance to talk with Benz’s students who got the DNA from him.
“I was very impressed with their knowledge and ability,” Slabach said. “Also it was a lot of fun to see the parts of the world my ancestors came from.”
Slabach said the results showed his ancestry from different parts of Europe.
“I don’t want to make it too much of a workload for Dr. Benz and his students, but if you have an opportunity to have your DNA sequenced for ancestry it is a lot of fun,” Slabach said.
Benz said he feels as if the experiment is interesting and also an aid to students.
“Where did you parents come from? Where did your grandmother’s grandmother come from? I find that fascinating and I think most people do themselves,” Benz said.“I think that when we teach them how they can trace genealogy with DNA, we provide a learning opportunity that is unique. For science to do that for the students of Wesleyan there is no reason not to.”