It’s all in the genome – plant cyanide!

Our science enthusiasts enjoyed an engaging and rewarding work experience recently. The program, known as Science Immersion Research Experience (SIRE) program, provided students the opportunity to work within the Gene Technology Access Centre (GTAC) team. This involved using research grade equipment to conduct cutting edge science experiments, pursuing a small research project on plant cyanide.

A fabulous science enrichment opportunity for those with a strong passion and curiosity for both the biological and chemical Sciences.

The final day of the program entailed the completion of student team blogs in readiness for formal presentation in front of GTAC staffers. Evaluation of the cyanide investigation was undertaken and it truly felt like the students had completed ‘cutting edge’ biological research. It was concluded that genes for cyanide production are present in some plants and also expressed in different concentrations. Having this knowledge will ensure certain plants will either not be selected as edible foods for human consumption or suitably processed.

Lesley Malligan-Paul
Science Learning Area Leader & Sr School Teacher
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On Monday, our group of 10 students made our way to GTAC, at University High School. After registering, we headed to the first floor where we were sorted into three group where we were to be doing all our investigations and research. We also were introduced to four scientists, who were there to help us with our experiments.

Our aim for the day was to extract DNA from three types of plants. We did so by collecting samples of each leaf and putting them into three different containers, added different chemical, mixed, centrifuged and exposed them to different temperatures. But the end we had a pure sample of DNA of each plant. The next step was to create copies of each one, but that was planned for the next day.

There were many highlights of the day, which included meeting new people, using cool scientific equipment and getting a feel for the type of work scientists do in the labs. It was a pretty exciting first day, which left everyone intrigued for the days to come.
Sonia Bonich, Year 9
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Having set up an experiment on Monday to determine whether three particular genes (Cyp 71, Cyp79 and UGT) were present in plum, sugar gum and an unknown eucalyptus species, Tuesday morning was the moment when we found out whether this had yielded any results. Using gel electrophoresis (a process where negatively charged DNA is channelled through an electrified gel towards the positive terminal and the shortest fragments of DNA go the furthest) we determined that the genes were not present. Failure is an essential part of scientific research, so we decided to try and re-run this experiment by once again running the Polymerase Chain Reaction Machine (PCR) machine (essentially a super high-tech oven which facilitates the reproduction of DNA) at a higher temperature for more DNA cycles. Following this, we learnt about two topics. Firstly our group was briefed on scientific blog writing techniques which we then put to use by beginning the writing of our blog. Secondly, we learnt about the reason why cyanide is dangerous and how it works in an organism. Essentially what happens is that the cyanide binds to the haemoglobin and the cytochrome oxidase C enzyme which in turn means that the organism can no longer carry out respiration leading to death. Tuesday was a productive day and many topics and techniques were learned such as gel electrophoresis, the effects of cyanide and science communication skills. Max Sandler – Year 11
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Rather than just learning about one large and main topic, which the program was based on… I learned about many small, yet very important things which built upon my experiences on how labs operate and work and my understanding on Biology, which is a key factor in many aspects of life. I learned about how to use a micropipette, what a standard curve is, how DNA is replicated, how to use microscopes, how to perceive results and e.c.t.

The program was very well planned and the educators were very informed, which means I was able to receive the best experience I could get.
Julian Glowinski – Year 10
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On Wednesday we prepared many different samples to test for levels of cyanide. The samples our group prepared were raw cassava tuber, young cassava leaves, young sugar gum leaves and cassava based chips. These were left overnight.

On Thursday we tested the samples for levels of cyanide and we also tested some samples with controlled levels of cyanide to establish a baseline. We also visited the Melbourne University Department of Biology to see some pressed flower specimens and fancy microscopes.
Ariel Epstein Year 9
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Monday was our first day at GTAC, and we all went on a bus together from school. Upon our arrival, we were split into our research groups and had a get-to-know-you activity to meet the other students and the GTAC staff. KDS had 10 of 15 students, and the other 5 were from Mansfield and Sherbrooke Forest. Along with the GTAC staff we also met Dr Rebecca Miller from Melbourne University, as she is the lead scientist in the research that we are doing.

After a safety induction, which included a tour of the building, Bec (Dr Miller) gave us the project brief. We would be looking into the genes of cyanide producing plants, such as cassava, sugar gum trees and plum trees. This is important because 1 billion people around the world have cassava as a staple food in their diet. The maximum amount of cyanide considered safe is 10ppm (parts per million) but cassava usually has 20-25ppm. The plant produces more cyanide when under stress, and during drought there can be as much as 200ppm.

The next session was our first step into the project. We had to extract and purify DNA. Within each lab group, there were three small sub-groups (1-2 students) working with different leaves. I was working with juvenile Sugar Gum leaves, and the others were working with mature Sugar Gum and Plum leaves.

To extract the DNA we ground up leaf discs and added them to a primer in a tube and spun all of the mixtures in the centrifuge. The liquid was separated and put into another tube, primer was added, and it was spun in the centrifuge; this was to purify the DNA. The purification process was repeated several times, and the tubes were incubated.

After lunch, we prepared the DNA to be replicated. The whole genome and a few chemicals (that would make it replicate) were added to a buffer, which is a base solution that essentially tells the DNA which small section of it to replicate. The tubes were incubated overnight.
Overall, this was a fantastic day. I’m really looking forward to the rest of the week!
Jessica Kaplan – Year 10
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Over the past week, I have been lucky enough to have an experience working at an actual laboratory doing actual research during the SIRE experience. During the week we had the chance to research with scientists about the way that many plants produce and store cyanide. We also researched about the deadly effects that the cassava plant, a staple food for over 1 billion people, can result in. My favourite part of the whole experience was learning how to use scientific equipment that I have used. Overall, the SIRE experience was very fun and educational. I learnt a lot and had a great time.
Tobi Taranto Year 9
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The aim of the work experience research was related to an investigation of several plants including Cassava (a staple plant food) and the identification of concentration of levels of cyanide. It was found that cassava processed chips, contained the highest levels of cyanogenic compounds. The food product needs to be prepared properly in order that people do not get sick.
Abraham Nathan-Valentine – Year 9

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