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Biology major Melissa Shaya ’03 (Cherry Hill, N.J.) recently researched bacteria that are resistant to mercury in Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, N.Y. This resistance is a genetic adaptation that has arisen as a reaction to polluted conditions.

Last semester, Shaya conducted this research as an independent study, and over the January interim session between regular semesters, she worked on it as an EXCEL Scholar with Laurie Caslake, assistant professor of biology.

“Melissa did the original gene cloning, restriction mapping, and analysis. But in our search for the mercury resistant gene,” says Caslake, “we cloned a gene that encoded glutathione reductase, an enzyme responsible for energy production in the cell.” Glutathione aids in the cell’s defense from free radicals and other stresses.

She adds, “Reductase is a general class of enzymes. Of the many genes found in your body, some build things — they are structural — while others do things, such as enzymes.”

Says Shaya, “I found that this gene encoded glutathione reductase. I was trying to complete the sequence analysis of the glutathione reductase gene by performing restriction enzyme digestions, cloning the resulting fragments into a plasmid vector, and preparing the samples for sequence analysis. In addition, I was trying to learn more about glutathione reductase and its importance for bacteria.”

The technology used in the experiments included polymerase chain reaction and restriction fragment length polymorphisms. PCR is a sensitive technique to analyze an organism’s genetic content, and RFLP patterns can be used to determine whether various bacteria isolates are related.

“Eventually, we’d like to determine the role of this enzyme and see if it is related to the mercury resistant gene,” says Caslake.

Shaya gained experience in immunology and virology last summer with Glenn Rall ’85 at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

“The two research experiences were totally different, but I have found both to be very interesting and educational,” says Shaya. “Research allows you to apply what you have learned in school to real experiments, and it also gives you the opportunity to learn things that you would not encounter in the classroom.”

Shaya, who hopes to attend medical school and become a pediatrician, believes the work she has completed will benefit her future aspirations.

“Although I may not be doing research in a laboratory in the future, these experiences provided me with valuable knowledge,” she says. “I think it helped teach me how to deal with problems or unexpected results when they arise and I learned valuable techniques.”

“Lafayette provides an excellent opportunity for undergraduates to do research,” she adds. “The size of the school allows the professors here to develop close relationships with the students. They are always more than willing to help students out.”

A graduate of Cherry Hill High School East, Shaya is vice president of operations and former vice president of scholarship for her sorority, Alpha Gamma Delta. She is a member of Hillel Society and a volunteer for Kids in the Community.

Categorized in: Academic News