The acquisition of two additional state-of-the-art pieces of DNA sequencing instruments positions Western Carolina University’s Forensic Science Program to establish a DNA sequencing core facility on campus.
“We will be able to offer a multitude of DNA sequencing services to institutions across the state and enhance research and educational opportunities for students, particularly in areas such as forensic genetics, cellular and molecular biology, environmental health sciences and biochemistry,” said Brittania Bintz, a forensic research scientist at WCU.
A $175,000 grant from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center enabled WCU to purchase a fourth DNA sequencing instrument, an Applied Biosystems 3500 HID Genetic Analyzer, for the program’s laboratory. Then a new research collaboration with Illumina Inc., a manufacturer of next-generation DNA sequencing instrumentation, helped WCU to acquire a fifth sequencer, an Illumina MiSeq, for evaluation and use. This new instrument will augment the utility of the existing Illumina IIx instrument on the WCU campus by providing important preliminary data that can then be scaled up to the higher capacity Illumina IIx, which is capable of supporting regional users in a wide variety of genome projects.
The new equipment enables WCU to increase the number of samples that can be processed and supports research collaborations for faculty members across forensic science, biology, and health and human sciences disciplines and researchers at Highlands Biological Station.
Currently, students and faculty use the laboratory to not only gain hands-on experience with sample preparation, genotyping, sequencing and analysis, but also research the newest sequencing instruments to develop methods that may be employed in crime laboratories in the future.
In addition, faculty members are involved in collaborative, multidisciplinary research projects. Patricia A Foley, associate professor and forensic scientist-in-residence, is working on research with Brian Byrd, assistant professor of environmental health, and Ron Davis, assistant professor of natural resource conservation and management. They are working to develop methods for ecosystem analysis that are less-invasive and biased than traditional methods by incorporating sequencing DNA from blood consumed by mosquitoes, said Foley.
Specifically, the researchers are examining the effects on biodiversity caused by forest fragmentation that results from partitioning land for urban development as well as the shift in population dynamics and feeding behaviors of mosquitoes, said Foley.
“Forest fragmentation increases human and wildlife interaction, decreases the quality and quantity of habitat for native species, and increases the habitat for invasive species such as mosquitoes,” said Foley.
Their experimental design will involve using mosquitoes as “natural” samplers – collecting and identifying mosquitoes, and using the insects’ blood meal to determine what types of animals they are feeding on within fragmented and nonfragmented areas in Western North Carolina. In addition, the group will explore the potential for transmission of La Crosse encephalitis, a disease spread by three species of mosquitoes found in WNC as a result of urbanization.
Western Carolina University students from the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resources, the School of Health Sciences and the Forensic Science Program will be involved in every step of this research, said Foley.
“We are excited to provide these students with the opportunity to development critical thinking and problem-solving skills and obtain better self-awareness of connections made between personal interests and abilities combined with research education,” she said.
By Teresa Killian Tate