Really involving undergrads in research

A paper in Genetics today has many, many (!) authors — and they aren’t from a big multi-nation project or large genome sequencing center, but a collection of undergraduates at UCLA. Maybe they didn’t all write the paper which can be confusing to some folks, but it looks like a group effort lead to some important results.

Using a large consortium of undergraduate students at UCLA in an organized program, we have undertaken a functional genomic screen in the Drosophila eye. In addition to the educational value of discovery-based learning, this report presents the first comprehensive genome-wide analysis of essential genes involved in eye development. The data reveal the surprising result that the X-chromosome has almost twice the frequency of essential genes involved in eye development as that found on the autosomes.

I am sure there are probably several other examples of this type of hands-on research education ongoing at different universities large and small. It is great that it can lead to a publication for these students and hopefully get them excited about problems in biology and genetics. Now let’s get those Neurospora screens going for undergraduate class projects!

Fungus Finds Frogs, Frogs Croak

Frogs have been having a tough time of it lately. While there are likely many contributing factors to the global frog decline, one known cause of frog dieoff is a fungal pathogen: Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. Unfortunately, little is known about how this aquatic fungus kills frogs or how the disease was originated and spread.

However, Dr. Jess Morgan and colleagues published in PNAS (open access article) this week a study aimed at answering the latter questions. Specifically, the authors investigated Batrachochytrium populations in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and sampled the genetic diversity. A clonal population structure with few genotypes indicates that the fungus is new to the region as it hasn’t had time to accumulate mutations. Conversely, should the disease be endemic, there should be many distinct genotypes. Without giving too much of the punchline away, the authors find evidence for an epidemic spread, though certain locations have populations that are recombining.  Any migration of the fungus may even be human assisted.  It will be interesting to see how the disease is controlled and the authors raise a good point here: distribution of resistant sporangia may make it easy for the organism to spread and remain dormant.  As a result, this may be a particularly tough disease to control.