Watershed Students Map Their Own DNA

29 January 2016





            Biology students at Camden’s Watershed School are using high-tech equipment from the Jackson Laboratory to determine whether they have two genes associated with athletic abilities: either power/speed or endurance related. The project is being taught by Watershed instructor Phil Gerard, who spent part of last summer as a teaching fellow at Jackson Lab, known for its cutting-edge genome research.

            According to Gerard, ongoing studies of elite athletes indicate that these two genes may play an important role. The Watershed students—about a dozen juniors and seniors—won’t get any bragging rights over who has these genes because the results will be anonymous: it’s considered unethical for minors to receive potentially life-changing information in the course of a classroom experiment.

Explains Gerard: “The genes we’re analyzing are not currently known as having disease-related aspects. However, genes certainly are associated with health. The nuances of our growing understanding of gene activity, and of risks associated with certain genotypes, can be difficult to convey, even to adults. For that reason we’ve decided that our students shouldn’t have to deal with any form of predetermined health information.”

            In fact, the ethics of genetic research was an integral part of the Watershed study. Says senior Jesse Snider of Belfast: “In class we discussed whether you would have your child tested for these sorts of genes if you knew they would benefit. And based on our conversations we decided we didn’t need to know who had which genes. Ultimately who people are goes down to genetics, but we didn’t feel it was necessary to put people into biological categories.”

            Still, that didn’t stop students from speculating which of their classmates—there was only one—ended up with two copies of the endurance gene. In class on a recent afternoon, Gerard projected a graphic of a gel slide that revealed the gene markers for each student. Previously the students had extracted and purified their DNA from saliva, then rehydrated it and amplified it through an incubation process known as polymerase chain reaction (PCR), using machines supplied by Jackson Lab. One student’s results clearly showed two copies of the gene, which produces a protein that plays an important role in blood pressure regulation and electrolyte balance. “One of you is a potential endurance athlete,” said Gerard.

He then cautioned his students that this particular “endurance gene” is only one piece of the large biological puzzle that determines athletic ability. “Science has revealed that most genetics are not Mendelian, where one gene is dominant and another is recessive,” he tells them. “We’ve learned that most traits come about from a complex interplay of many genes, many genetic regulators and, as importantly, the environment. In fact regulator ‘switches’ in the genome are as important as the genes themselves. Scientists used to think that about 98 percent of our DNA was essentially useless because it didn’t make proteins—they actually called it junk DNA. But that term is now outdated.”

“Wow, that’s amazing,” said one student.

            Gerard, who holds Master’s degrees in biology and environmental policy from Tufts, is a land planning consultant and the former executive director of the Maine Forest Biodiversity Project. He also teaches at the Rockland campus of the University of Maine, Augusta. “My training is in conservation biology, which is often a big-picture view of the natural world,” he says. “But today the cutting edge in biological science remains at the molecular level and with genomic research.” He cites current, notable work being done at Jackson Lab in the new field of personalized medicine, in which drug treatments can be tailored to fit an individual’s specific genetic makeup. “It’s endlessly fascinating,” he says.

            His students at Watershed agree. “Phil has really turned me around on the topic of science,” says Snider. “I was always much more of a history student, but Phil’s class has really changed that. We do a lot of hands-on work, which is great because for me the concepts in science were always the hardest part if you can’t do anything with the information. I prefer making things happen.”


The Watershed School attracts students who are seeking a demanding intellectual environment in the context of a small and supportive learning community. The twelve-year-old school is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges and is a Maine State Approved School. For more information, please contact: 207-230-7341 or go to www.watershed-school.org.


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Watershed juniors Peter and Jill Galloway prepare genetic samples.

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Teacher Phil Gerard supervises genetic sampling with seniors (from left) Jerin Brooks, Soren Moesswilde and Laurel Brooks.