CORVALLIS - An undergraduate biology class at Oregon State University has attracted attention from around the country for its use of a genetically engineered fish that is getting students involved in original research, debating issues of science and public policy, and even learning a little about genetics along the way.
And it's all due, instructors say, to this unusual little fish that can literally glow.
This past term, about 720 biology students at OSU were among the first in the nation to use and study GloFish, a patented transgenic fish that was originally developed for research on the detection of toxins, but is now available for sale as an aquarium fish. These zebra danios, which are a small tropical fish, have had a gene inserted into them that makes the fish glow red under ultraviolet light - they are being called the world's first "genetically changed pet."
But at OSU, instructors of the university's general biology courses for non-science majors use this fish to teach not only about genetics, but about the ethics, politics, social issues and research processes relating to the biotechnology revolution.
"For many of the students in this class, this may be the last science course they will ever take," said Lesley Blair, an instructor of biology. "But soon they are citizens, consumers, and voters, and will be making decisions about science that affect not only their own lives but the world around us. So a key part of this course is not just to teach basic biological concepts, but to get students thinking about issues of science and to develop a better understanding of complex scientific processes."
The GloFish were made to order for that task. In one fell swoop they bring in topics such as fundamental genetics, evolution, genetic engineering, the regulation of science by government agencies, the ethics and morality of creating genetically modified organisms, the appropriate uses of these organisms, the concerns and risks, and other topics.
Past surveys of students, Blair said, have found that many students have a negative view of science and mistrust it - they see scientists as being "other people" who may make decisions without considering the public good. Also, some students have a poor understanding of scientific processes even though they look to science and technology to address many of the world's critical problems.
"We need to get students thinking about more than just basic biological concepts, they need to see how research is actually done and how science is managed and regulated," Blair said.
In this course, every student was part of a team that did original studies on the GloFish, including developing research questions and hypotheses, and reporting on the results of their observations. Individuals debated the ethics of genetic engineering, the regulations on biotechnology and many other issues. Some of the students even studied the reactions of other students in a social science survey.
"The use of GloFish in the classroom has been so intriguing that we've had inquiries from other universities, colleges and about 20 high schools from around the nation," Blair said. "Some high school teachers have visited us, and our students learned so much that they were able to explain aspects of the fish to the visiting teachers."
Even the purchase and sale of the GloFish has raised issues. The use of this gene for creating fluorescence in animals has been done for some time, but this company is patenting ornamental transgenic fluorescent fish. Some scientists object to that. And the regulatory issues are complex - right now, for instance, the use of GloFish in California is illegal because of various regulatory hurdles that are unique to that state.
If nothing else, the fish are pretty.
"With most transgenic plants or animals, it's not as apparent a change," Blair said. "You might be looking at a corn plant that has larger kernels. That's not as compelling for students as a moving animal, the experience becomes more personal. With GloFish you can easily see the difference between these and other zebra fish, study their behavior, do research. Some students became so fascinated by this they came in early, before class, to collect data."
The students in the class, she said, were clearly divided on the use of the fish. Some thought their creation was fine, others had concerns about the ethics of changing plant or animal species, or questioned the regulations set up for such uses.
"Most of the students appreciated the relevancy of the project because of the increased news coverage of genetic issues in recent years, and their enthusiasm was quite high," said Ryan Taylor, a doctoral student and graduate teaching assistant for the course.
"I was most impressed with the level of scientific thinking this project brought out of the students," Taylor said. "This project . . . gave many of them an increased appreciation for the scientific process, and will make them more critical thinkers about scientific information they will encounter the rest of their lives."
The fish may be used in a few more classes, Blair said, before the course moves on to other educational approaches. Information on the effectiveness of this curriculum will also be distributed to other schools, she said.