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Student sleuths on Plains buffalo trail

Sat., Oct. 30, 2010

Lifen Guo, Marina DeFrates, Forrest Ireland and Elizabeth Rose stand in the lab at North Central High School  Thursday.  (Jesse Tinsley)
Lifen Guo, Marina DeFrates, Forrest Ireland and Elizabeth Rose stand in the lab at North Central High School Thursday. (Jesse Tinsley)

North Central team collects DNA, historical data

Buffalo have roamed the North American continent for thousands of years. Scientists have conducted research on mammals for centuries. And now, a group of Spokane high school students are attempting to find the original DNA of the Northern Plains buffalo, or bison.

Three North Central High School students are in the midst of extracting DNA from ancient bison bones and fur in a well-equipped science lab at the Spokane school. A fourth is compiling historical information. School officials say they believe the project – the type of work typically done by professional scientists – is unparalleled among high schools nationwide.

“This is like a master’s, Ph.D., post-doctorate, lifetime research project,” said Randy James, the North Central science teacher working with the students.

Jim Matheson, assistant director of the National Bison Association, said a century ago bison had been “decimated down to just about 1,000 or less.” Today there are about 500,000.

Finding the original genome is tricky, Matheson added. “In today’s bison, you are still going to find some cattle, and as minute as those genetics are, people are still going to talk about the purity of bison.”

The four North Central students – Lifen Guo, Marina DeFrates, Forrest Ireland and Elizabeth Rose – started working on the research project this summer. It’s not a class; the students do the work in the lab before and after school and during lunchtime. They’ve spent 150 hours each on the project and say they’d spend more if they could.

Finding a DNA sequence original to bison “all depends on us,” DeFrates said.

“And we’re the first ones,” Guo added.

The project started with reading about the history of bison and their travels. The students’ project focuses on a bison path from Alberta, Canada, to south Texas. Next, the students trekked to Glen, Mont., where they dug for bison bones from which to extract DNA.

In addition to those artifacts, the group has worked with archaeologists in the region to obtain bones that are carbon-dated as far back as 10,000 years ago, said Steve Fisk, a North Central vice principal who is also overseeing the project.

Back at the North Central science lab, Guo, DeFrates and Ireland carefully inserted pieces of bone into tiny vials along with complex chemicals used to extract DNA. It’s a procedure they will repeat over and over to find a good genetic sample.

“Getting DNA from ancient bison is harder because it’s more broken down” by time, DeFrates said.

Students use equipment in the high school lab, such as a DNA sequencer – like the ones found in a crime lab – and another to amplify the DNA, and upload their findings to the Internet for other scientists to view.

The high school lab is exceptionally well-equipped. James has built it using grant money and by networking with companies who specialize in biotechnical instruments.

“I e-mail or contact two or three companies per week looking for freebies,” James said. “We’re very unique in the nation.”

All the students say they’re thrilled to be doing high-level research.

“It will open doors at colleges,” said Ireland, a senior. “It’s propelling us into our future.”

At the end of the school year, the students will present their findings – DNA and a history going back to the 1700s – at the National Bison Association Summer Conference being held this year in Bozeman. Presentations to doctoral students at area universities also are planned for next summer.

“The bison industry is pretty small, and we don’t have a lot of money for research,” said Matheson, of the National Bison Association. “The fact that it’s high school students taking it on is great. Anytime we can get young people involved with bison, it’s great.”


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