When little Nemo’s dad sinks to the darkest depths of the ocean in the Disney movie “Finding Nemo,” he comes fin to fang with one scary-looking character—an angler fish. With its oversized jaws, big eyes and mangled teeth, the angler is one of the strangest fish on the planet. But to biology professor Dottie Engle, it also makes for riveting research, especially the flashlight dangling from the antenna on its head.
Engle and her students spend their days in the biology lab cloning the DNA from the bacteria that cause angler fish antennae to glow.
“I never had any idea I would be doing cloning,” says senior William Penn. “My friends look at me with a very odd face. They think I’m joking.”
But it’s no joke. All biology and natural science majors practice cloning the bioluminescent genes from the phosphorescent bacteria that light up the ocean at night. Some of them use those techniques to clone genes from other organisms such as the fungus aspergillus for their senior research projects. But the fact that cells from the angler fish glow in the dark makes a successful cloning job that much more tantalizing. Students can see their results glowing in a petri dish. The energy in the bacteria makes the cells shimmer like faint stars.
But cloning in the biology lab is not like cloning Dolly the sheep. “A clone is a group of cells derived from a single starting cell and have identical DNA,” Engle says. “True cloning—growing a new organism from a single cell—doesn’t exist in mammals.”
Cloning in the lab is making copies of a particular gene for further study. Engle’s students learn the process of isolating cells in test tubes, extracting and purifying the DNA, then growing new DNA. The process takes several days, but in the end, after viewing their glowing results, they have learned the basic processes of setting up substances for further research such as gene sequencing or mapping to isolate genes, including those that cause disease in humans.