Improving Research Protocols
CALS student helps develop new genotyping assay
Mice have been used in biomedical research for centuries due to their genetic similarity to humans. Mice used in laboratories are bred to produce offspring with certain desired characteristics depending on what researchers are investigating.
The traditional process of breeding laboratory mice with the correct genotype, or genetic make-up, for a study can take 30-36 months. Scientific advances have lowered that timeframe to 15-18 months, but genotyping methods remain expensive and time consuming. A novel mouse genotyping assay developed at the University of Idaho could help reduce time and save money while providing significantly more genetic information to researchers.
Gretchen Hansten, a senior studying animal and veterinary science: pre-vet option in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, has been assisting Shirley Luckhart, professor in the Departments of Entomology, Plant Pathology and Nematology, and Biological Sciences, Kim Andrews, bioinformatic data scientist in the U of I Institute for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies (IBEST), and Nora Céspedes, postdoctoral fellow in the Luckhart lab, on the project.
“What this assay allows us to do is, we can do fewer backcrosses in the mice in order to get the genetic make-up that we want or the genotype we want for a specific experiment,” Hansten said. “So, we have to breed the mice fewer times to get what we want.”
After the female mouse has been bred, Hansten collects a very small portion of the tail tissue of the offspring and extracts the DNA. A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is run to determine if that specific mouse has the genotype sequence of DNA they are looking for.
Hansten then performs a gel electrophoresis, a technique used to separate DNA fragments according to size, to see if the mouse has the desired genotype or not. Results from Hansten’s work is given to Andrews and Céspedes to determine which studies the mice will be used for.
"It’s the very beginning part of the whole process and kind of very small, but a necessary piece,” Hansten said.
The research team has prepared a journal article with their findings, with Hansten listed as an author.
“This project plays into a bigger role that I think our lab serves,” Hansten said. “This allows us to conduct research at a little faster rate because we’re not having to do as many backcrosses to get the genotypes we need in mice to do the experiments.”
Hansten and other undergraduate researchers process between 70-100 samples each week, where attention to detail and following protocols is vital.
“The one thing that stands out specifically about this project is the amount of attention and respect you need to have for doing research,” Hansten said. “We process a large number of samples and if we’re not careful or give things the right amount of time, we can easily get things messed up and we have to rerun the tests. If you get sloppy, that’s when the lab starts losing efficiency.”
Hansten will use the knowledge gained as an undergraduate researcher in her quest to become a medical doctor. She will graduate with her bachelor’s degree in May 2021 and is applying to medical schools with a focus on rural healthcare.
Originally from Jerome, Hansten enrolled at U of I to study agricultural education after spending much of her youth participating in 4-H and FFA. During her second year at U of I, she found herself wanting to return to her childhood dream of becoming a doctor. After reading an article about farmer suicide rates, Hansten realized that she could combine her passion for medicine and love for agriculture by providing support to rural areas.If you want a place that’s going to care about you and offer you the opportunity to develop and grow into the individual that you were meant to be, then you should go to U of I.Gretchen Hansten
“By practicing in a rural area, I can have the career I am looking for and still be connected to the agriculture industry by caring for people who work in the industry,” she said.
Although animal and veterinary science: pre-vet isn’t a traditional path to medical school, Hansten felt that the experiences and knowledge she would receive in CALS would set her up for success.
“I looked at it from the standpoint that the anatomy will be different, and physiology might be a little different in some ways, but in a lot of ways it will still be the same,” Hansten said. “It’s also given me the experience of working with fresher tissues during anatomy, physiology and reproductive physiology labs. I think it’s a lot easier to learn those harder science concepts when they are applied like in animal science courses.”
Hansten also felt it was important to stay within the CALS family to learn more about her future patients.
“I wanted to stay in CALS because of the family environment, hands-on learning focus and also to keep myself tied to the rural lifestyle and people in those rural areas,” she said. “It’s been a way to understand the kind of background of the patient population that I want to serve as a physician.”
Her experiences at U of I allowed Hansten to grow and realize her true dreams.
“If you want a place that’s going to care about you and offer you the opportunity to develop and grow into the individual that you were meant to be, then you should go to U of I,” she said.