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North Central High School students extract DNA from ancient bison bone

A handful of students at North Central High School are the first to identify the DNA of a 9,100-year-old Northern Plains bison.

But the discovery didn’t come easy; the group has been extracting samples from the ancient bone and testing it for six months, failing every time until recently.

“It’s really exciting,” said Randy James, the science teacher overseeing the project. Forrest Ireland, one of three students researching the bison DNA, added: “I was surprised we were able to get something out of that old bone.”

They hope to have several dozen samples by the end of the year.

The project began last summer after the students read about the history of bison. The students’ project focuses on a bison path from Alberta to south Texas. The ultimate goal is to identify the original DNA of the Northern Plains bison.

School officials say the students’ work and discoveries are of a caliber more often found in professional science.

“It’s great science,” said Steve Fisk, an assistant principal at NC and an advocate of the project.

Persistence has been the key in the students’ success. “It takes a week and a half for one day’s work,” said James, adding DNA sequencing is a laborious process, and this project is not part of any class. The students are doing the work before and after school.

“It got to the point where you felt like everything was failing,” Ireland said. “But I knew it would work because professional labs do it all the time.”

The bone from which the students extracted samples came from an archaeologist who had previously determined its age. Once the students had a viable DNA sequence, they compared it to current bison DNA.

“It’s between 10 and 15 percent different than today’s bison,” Ireland said – about the same difference between today’s bison and an Angus cow.

James said now that scientists have discovered a genetic defect in hundreds of Yellowstone National Park bison caused by exposure to a cattle disease, the students’ work is more important than ever.

“It will show us which bison are the purest of the pure,” James said. “It could be used to determine which bison have a good genetic make-up.”