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Randy Smith oversaw the development of GeniQuest, which uses dragons to teach real genetics to high school students.

Mapping the dragon genome

by Tom Walsh / Illustration by Karen Davis

Scientists at The Jackson Laboratory have successfully mapped the genome of the dragon, pinpointing the genetic factors behind such traits as forked tails, webbed wings and the ability to breathe fire.

"Getting there was none of the fun, as dragons only breed every 500 years," says Randy Smith, Ph.D., the research project manager who oversaw the work required to unravel the mysteries of dragon genetics. "That proved a major challenge in doing genome mapping and genetic studies involving inheritance over multiple generations."

While dragons may be mythical beasts, the genetic map of their physical traits is a reality. Smith is among the masterminds behind the GeniQuest project, which relies on an elaborate, interactive, computer-based curriculum to teach the basics of genetic inheritance to high school students.

"This project aims to bring the ideas behind cutting-edge genetics research techniques to high school students during a three-week module," Smith says. "We now have been able to extend the program to elite students in three magnet high schools: the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in 2006, the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in 2007 and, this year, to the Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology in Conyers, Ga.

Gary Churchill, Ph.D., organized a team to expand the Laboratory's renowned Summer Student Program into a remotely taught, full-year course for students at science magnet schools.

"Our school is focused on inquiry-based learning with each student completing three independent scientific investigations by the time they graduate," says Amanda Dyann Baskett, a research teacher at the magnet school near Atlanta. "One upcoming junior had expressed an interest in genetic research early in the spring, and I had only ever taken a summer seminar on computational biology so I was very excited to learn more about The Jackson Laboratory and the outreach they do. I knew that this would be a wonderful way to expose our students to a new research area."

GeniQuest transports students to the mythical island of Gandwar, where they consult with experts on dragon genetics as they breed, and study dragons to confirm the rules of inheritance they learned in the classroom. Along the way they discover mysterious traits, such as dragons that develop plates on their upper necks. Students ultimately use their insights into genetics to help the dragon population ward off a disease that breaks out on Gandwar.

"This program provides students with a hands-on introduction to the important tools and processes of computational genetics research," Smith says. "Because it takes 500 years for dragons to breed, students conduct research on a model organism called a 'drake,' much like genetic researchers here at The Jackson Laboratory use mice as a model organism for studying the genetic basis of human health and disease."

To ensure that the statistics work yields reliable results, the project's designers made sure that the underlying genome for dragons and drakes was scientifically analogous to the extensive genetic similarities between humans and mice.

"We sliced the mouse genome into 50 parts, rearranging them randomly," Smith says. "The resulting genome has the same relationship to the dragon genome that our human genome does to mice. Investigations into the dragon and drake genes can be made using the standard tools of computational biology and yielding valid results that students can investigate within the mouse genome database."

Advanced students could even run their own analysis on any of the huge number of public datasets that have not yet been tackled. This would offer the possibility of uncovering original research results and require no more equipment than their standard computer in the process.

"My enthusiasm must have been infectious," says Baskett, "as I ended up finding two more students interested in this area. Now, as a team, they are delving into background information and previous research into computational biology. My students are all looking forward to conversing with expert researchers at The Jackson Laboratory next year so that they can learn how to use the real world technology and contribute to the field."

The best part of all, Smith says, is that students like the program.

"Somewhere throughout the course, I had learned one of the most valuable lessons that any aspiring scientist can learn, and that is how to learn," says Renée Symonds, who completed the module in her junior year at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics.