By Lucy Sharples, Sheffield Institute of Translational Neuroscience (SITraN), University of Sheffield
The 1st of July 2016 marked yet another successful Open day at the Sheffield Institute of Translational Neuroscience (SITraN), University of Sheffield. The main research focus at this world-leading centre of neuroscience is motor neurone disease, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
As a new PhD student here, I participated in a fantastic opportunity to reveal the behind the scenes of laboratory research to the general public including patients and carers. After a selection of talks about ongoing projects and recent discoveries, the guests were taken round the labs on a series of workstations to gain some hands on experience.
My workstation was based in Janine Kirby’s lab (holding the strawberry below) and our aim was to demystify and visualise DNA. In a very messy, yet simple experiment we used a single strawberry, detergent, salt, water, ethanol and some kitchen roll to lyse the fruit’s cell walls and precipitate the DNA. After this process, we obtained a long string of sticky DNA on the end of a cocktail stick.
The second part of the experiment involved visualizing different DNA products under ultra-violet light from polymerase chain reactions (PCR) using an electrophoresis kit (funded by the Biochemical Society).
DNA samples were loaded into agarose gel wells bathed in a buffer solution. By passing an electric current through the unit, the DNA travelled down the gel. DNA is negatively charged, in the same way that the positive end of a magnet attracts the negative end of another magnet, the DNA migrates towards the positively charged electrode of the unit.
The distance travelled by the bands depends on the size of the DNA strand with the bigger pieces of DNA staying towards the top of the gel and the smaller pieces of DNA making their way further down the gel.
Gel electrophoresis usually requires ethidium bromide, which is carcinogenic. For this reason, this common laboratory technique cannot be demonstrated during public engagement events due to health and safety risks. However, our special electrophoresis unit uses a green DNA dye and a special illuminator, allowing the spectators to easily see the results, while eliminating the need for the use of any dangerous chemicals.
This event is just the beginning for this equipment, we have many school visits planned, public outreach activities and many more open days booked in the calendar.
Jodie Stephenson, Alejandro Lorente Pons and Lucy Sharples received a Biochemical Society Outreach Grant to fund the acquisition of the ethidium bromide-free gel electrophoresis unit. To apply for the current round of Scientific Outreach Grants please see the Biochemical Society Grants page for more details. The deadline for the current round is 23 September 2016.