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UTPA receives NSF grant for next-generation research tool
By Gail Fagan, Public Affairs Representative
Posted: 09/24/2013
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A powerful new tool acquired by a grant from the National Science Foundation will provide transformative research experiences for faculty and students at The University of Texas-Pan American.


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The $158,420 award to the University went toward the acquisition of a next-generation DNA sequencer, which allows for DNA sequencing techniques and analyses that are faster and more robust than traditional methods.

"Next generation sequencing allows for thousands to billions of short sequencing reactions to occur simultaneously and large amounts of sequence data to be generated," said Dr. Kristine Lowe, associate professor of biology and the grant's principal investigator. "UTPA's research team will include a diverse group of faculty from complementary biological disciplines that will incorporate next-generation sequencing into their research to address major biological questions in microbiology, plant science, zoology, genetics, physiology, ecology and for educational purposes in laboratory classes."

According to the National Institutes of Health, a DNA sequence is a detailed description of the order of the chemical building blocks, or bases, in a given stretch of DNA. Dr. Erin Schuenzel, assist professor of biology and co-principal investigator of the grant, explained that this sequence of bases reveals genetic information that can identify diseases in humans, plants and animals; indicate the identity of an organism in relationship to other organisms; and identify what organisms are present in an environmental sample.

"The next-generation sequencer not only reveals the sequence of DNA, but can also be used to tell which genes are active during the development of a healthy organism and a diseased one. The utility of the sequencer spans from biomedical research to the agricultural sciences to the environmental sciences," Schuenzel said.

Before next-generation sequencing, Schuenzel said it cost between $10,000-$15,000 for a bacterial genome, and the machines were considered too expensive except for top tier research universities or sequencing centers.

"Now we will be able to sequence an entire bacterial genome for less than $1,000. We can also sequence single human chromosomes for around the same price," she said.

Lowe said the breadth of current UTPA research projects - from insects that serve as vectors for Changas Disease to systematic studies of Tropical and New World morning glories - along with future projects and collaborations will advance and expand the department's and University's research and education capabilities.

"Acquiring a next-generation sequencer will allow researchers at UTPA, their Hispanic students, and collaborators at nearby institutions to perform cutting-edge research that is currently not available to them. A next-generation sequencer will allow faculty mentors to train new student researchers and use the technology in upper-division biology courses," said Lowe. "This has the potential to not only transform research and education for The University of Texas-Pan American, but transform research and education for the entire South Texas region."

The grant was effective Sept. 1.