Missing the mark can be a good thing

Missing the mark can be a good thing

Students learn scientific success doesn't always come in the form you expect
May 1, 2006

What do you get when you combine four ambitious Grade 10 students, a high school science curriculum coordinator, a university biologist, a biotechnology competition, and a failed experiment?

A winning recipe for science success, of course.

Under the direction of science coordinator Meg O’Mahony at the University of Toronto Schools (UTS), Jason Leung, Jasmine Tsang, Derek Wong, and Julie Yu decided to tackle the issue of climate change. Students at UTS can earn a science course credit by developing an experiment deemed worthy enough to gain entry into an annual science competition—namely, the Sanofi-Aventis Biotech Challenge.

O'Mahony initially regarded the group’s plan as almost too grand—they proposed addressing climate change with genetically modified plants. She was fairly certain the idea would be rejected by the Aventis judges, and warned the students of that prospect.

Instead, the judges gave the green light, and the students were matched up with York University biologist Logan Donaldson. His job was to help the students narrow the focus of their work to fit a four-month time frame.

In that time, the students identified a means of genetically modifying plants to increase the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) taken in during photosynthesis. Such a change, they surmised, could mean less CO2 making its way into the atmosphere.

The surprises started from the get-go. The student team tracked down an exotic plant species for investigation, which they expected to arrive in a large, impressive package. Instead, they received a small envelope containing a single sheet of laboratory filter paper. “I just thought ‘Wow—we’re going to base our project on something as small as that,’” says Yu.

Simply by adding water, the paper released a sample of a protein collected from Antarctic Hairgrass. This gene is what the hardy plant uses to control activase, a key enzyme most plants employ in photosynthesis. As temperatures rise, the activase enzyme denaturates—breaking down so plants take in lesser amounts of CO2 during photosynthesis. The students looked for ways in which the activase gene could be modified to prevent this breakdown.

By the time of the Sanofi-Aventis Biotech Challenge in April 2005, the students had successfully manipulated the activase gene using molecular modeling software. Only problem was, the gene became more sensitive to temperature, meaning the plant would process even less carbon dioxide at higher temperatures.

“Nobody has done this before,” O’Mahony recalls telling the disappointed students when the effort failed to yield the desired results.

“It didn’t achieve the raised denaturation points that we were originally hoping for,” says Yu. “But it definitely gave us a lot of information.”

More information than the scientific community had seen before, in fact. While the students’ labours did not turn the activase gene into a climate change ally, they did demonstrate the viability of the approach. And their project, “Building a Better Plant,” won last year’s Greater Toronto Area regional competition for the Sanofi-Aventis Biotech Challenge. The students shared a $2,500 cash prize with their school and a $2,500 scholarship to either York University or the University of Toronto.

“It was inconceivable 10 months ago that we could change the denaturing temperature of a plant,” Leung said afterward. “I didn’t even know what a denaturing temperature was back then. Thanks to our great mentor, it’s been surprising what we’ve been able to accomplish.”

In the end, O’Mahony wasn’t surprised by the win and says even failed experiments have a payoff because students are challenged by the process. Along the way, they also learn a great deal about each other and about life in the lab.

“You have to be dedicated and tenacious, and ready to put up with lots of editing when you’re done,” she says, adding that tensions and outright animosity often arise between students as they realize the considerable task they have taken on. “They’re still talking to one another, which is really good.”

Donaldson was equally impressed by the students’ performance, which he too viewed as an outstanding introduction to the ins and outs of the scientific process.

“I tell them to think of the lab as a kitchen,” he says, noting that outstanding scientific innovation can be as creative and unstructured as gourmet cuisine. “Everybody can cook, but not everybody can be a chef. I got lucky—I had four budding chefs for this particular project.”