They’ve been reading and talking about it all semester. And now, undergraduate students in the Integrative Genetics Lab course in the School of Biological Sciences will end their fall work with a hands-on experience with Covid-19.
The students in Chrissy Spencer’s classes won’t have anything to fear from that experience, though — they’ll be working with the genes for antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It’s these antibodies that detect the portion that makes the virus so infectious — the so-called ‘spike’ proteins, which bind to a host’s cells. Monoclonal antibodies are promising therapeutics for COVID-19. The students are sequencing the region that encodes the parts of the antibodies that bind to the spike protein.
“It’s just really cool,” says Jennifer Leavey, principal academic professional in the School of Biological Sciences. Leavey helped get the Covid-related genes into Spencer’s classes. “It’s been hard to teach in this particular kind of environment, and so being able to teach classes about this topic that’s on everyone’s minds — it makes facing the challenges of teaching during the pandemic less arduous. Working on the virus, and learning about the virus, makes the whole course feel more relevant and timely.”
Spencer, a senior academic professional in the School of Biological Sciences, emphasized that her students won’t be working "at the bench" (researching in a lab) on a vaccine or therapeutic treatments. The monoclonal antibody gene samples will be used to teach the students the basics of molecular genetics research – and how to do that in a lab.
“The students in Integrative Genetics Lab have been working remotely to write grant proposals about Covid-19 all semester long, and I was hoping we could do two to four face-to-face opportunities where they would get some hands-on lab experience, because that is a major missing piece when you push a course online,” she says. “Working with genes related to the coronavirus epidemic would be an opportunity to be more meaningful and relevant.”
Connecting across Covid
In May, during Georgia Tech’s spring semester shutdown, Leavey volunteered in the lab of her friend Mark Tompkins at the University of Georgia’s Center for Vaccines and Immunology. His lab was working on serology tests for Covid-19, and had received some plasmids of viral genes and monoclonal antibody genes from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. (Plasmids are DNA molecules that can be used to make copies of particular genes. In this case, the plasmids carry portions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus or monoclonal antibody genes.)
While working in the lab, Leavey started thinking about how the plasmids could be used in classes at Georgia Tech. And after completing routine and rigorous biosafety protocols at Georgia Tech and securing a materials transfer agreement with Mount Sinai, the plasmids were brought to campus in four petri dishes.
Learning the basics of viral lab research
One of the diagnostic tests used to confirm SARS-CoV-2 infections is a PCR (polymerase chain reaction), which identifies the virus’ genetic material. PCR is used in other applications as well. Spencer’s students will conduct PCR on one of the samples, Spencer says. “Then we’re going to send their PCR samples to be sequenced, so we can confirm that the letters in the genetic code in this particular gene match expectations.”
That’s what any working scientist would do when receiving material from another group, and now her undergraduate students will get a chance to conduct the same kinds of tests – not just to confirm the identity of the samples, and to understand how it’s done, but to also run down any possible errors or surprises that can happen in any scientific endeavor.
“The thing about research, you never know what’s going to happen,” Spencer says. Lab courses like this one have students work on real world samples and constructs. And this type of educational approach, called a course-based undergraduate research experience, is standard fare in the Biology program at Georgia Tech.