Cincinnati Museum Center enters the genomic age...

The beginnings of a working molecular genetics laboratory has been built in the zoology department at Cincinnati Museum Center. Frozen tissue collections are central to a modern natural history collection and typically the most active collection in terms of loans and exchanges between museums. This weekend we extracted our first DNA samples for the new lab. This should be the first ever DNA extractions at Cincinnati Museum Center.

The first step in converting a frozen piece of tissue into genetic data is the extraction of DNA from the tissue cells. DNA (short for DeoxyriboNucleic Acid) is the primary stuff of heredity. Within living cells are long stretches of DNA passed from parent to offspring that provides the information used in the development of the organism. Analysis of DNA can provide researchers with many things, from the action of genes to the evolutionary history of species. Removing the DNA from the cell involves bursting the cell open with soaps (known as cell lysis) and then separating the DNA from the myriad of proteins and other biological compounds that make up the cell. This is done by mixing the soup of cellular compounds from cell lysis with an organic solvent (phenol) and spinning it in a centrifuge. A tube with this cellular soup that has been mixed with phenol when spun down in a centrifuge separates into two layers; the bottom layer and the interface between the two layers contains all the proteins that you want to remove and the top layer is essentially water with the stuff you do want, namely nucleic acids like DNA. Remove the top layer and you have DNA cleaned of all the other cellular material you don't want. Repeating this process gets the sample cleaner and cleaner with each spin.

After a few rounds of these phenol extractions one takes the top layer containing the DNA, moves it to a new tube and adds ethanol. At this stage a neat thing happens. The DNA is not soluble in ethanol and together with salts that also are removed in the top layer of a DNA extraction, it becomes visible to the naked eye as a white, cottony mass. The photo to the right is the genomic DNA from a House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) extracted here at Cincinnati Museum Center. These samples will be part of a collaborative research project between Auburn University, University of Minnesota and Cincinnati Museum Center to understand the relationships among populations and the genetic history of both native and introduced house finches in North America.

Hopes are that genetic-based research will continue to grow in the zoology collection. Certainly this is a good start in bringing Cincinnati Museum Center into the age of modern, collection-based genetic research.