For many college students, the world of genetic engineering--the creation of new microorganisms to make drugs, increase production of plants and note the presence of disease--falls into the realm of science fiction.
For biology majors, however, the same world represents the exciting frontier of science and an increasingly important part of research in a variety of disciplines. And excitement about the cutting edge of biology is driving the growth of a new program at San Diego State University to teach the techniques of gene manipulation using DNA, the microscopic strands of material carrying the genetic code that determines heredity.
The program involves a rigorous set of courses in biology and chemistry, culminating in a yearlong lecture-laboratory and company internship leading to a certificate in recombinant DNA technology, one of only two in the California State University system. (The other is at San Francisco State University.) Recombinant DNA techniques involve taking a gene from one organism and transferring it to another.
During the first three years of the program, many of the students completing the lecture-lab portion have been snapped up by area biotechnology companies anxious to hire researchers trained in recombinant techniques without waiting for them to complete the internship portion.
“I guess we’ve been amazed at how successful things have turned out,” said Sanford Bernstein, a professor of molecular biology who, along with colleague Judith Zyskind, created the curriculum. When the two scholars were hired at SDSU, they were charged with setting up a broad program of teaching the life processes at the molecular level, which includes the study of genes, DNA and RNA proteins, enzyme reactions, and other aspects of the rapidly expanding field.
“It’s interesting that so many companies are looking for people to work with cloning, or recombining genes from one organism into another,” Bernstein said. “There are a lot of jobs out there.”
Bernstein stressed that the program should not be compared to a trade-school program at which a student is trained as a technician to perform a scientific procedure over and over in the same way.
Almost all of the 30 or so students who take the recombinant DNA course each semester are either seniors or graduate students, Bernstein said, who have satisfied the numerous prerequisites in chemistry, mathematics, biology and physics. And when they find jobs, they are not simply making agar (a seaweed base for bacterial cultures) or cleaning lab equipment.
“The job may be called technician, but the students are doing experiments, designing their own projects,” Bernstein said. “We give the basic science behind the techniques, not only showing how. For example, you can isolate DNA from bacteria cells in the lab but also explain why the use of certain chemicals and other factors leads to certain results.
“If you know why in addition (to how), you know you can trouble-shoot or . . . change (experiment) conditions if you so choose.”
Richard Showalter was among the first students who took the full course and internship. Showalter had graduated from UC San Diego with a major in cell biology but wanted the background in genetic engineering to accelerate his entry into the industrial biotechnology field.
“It’s pretty comprehensive coverage,” Showalter said of the SDSU course. Showalter interned at the Agouron Institute in La Jolla and was hired there to work full time after he completed the course. For the past 1 1/2 years, he has been working on varied experiments for the nonprofit institute.
“Without the course, I really would have found it extremely difficult to be dropped into a research lab (such as the one at Agouron),” Showalter said. “From the (SDSU) course, I had all the basics, I knew the process, so all I needed was a goal, a project, to start working on. That allows you to be able to use intuition on designing projects, on shaping your lab work.”
Showalter said that he would have needed to find a sympathetic professor at UCSD or private industry researcher willing to teach him the recombinant DNA process were it not for the academic training. Because so much of biology now utilizes genetic engineering, Showalter believes, such courses will become increasingly necessary.
“Otherwise, you essentially have to start from the ground up,” he said.
Bernstein said that the success of Showalter and other early graduates has quickly built the credibility of the program among the companies. In addition, the presence of so many companies in the San Diego area helps the popularity of the course. Some companies send their employees to the course for the special training, he said.
But not all the students take the course as an introduction for private industry. Pat O’Donnell, a graduate student in Bernstein’s teaching lab, took the course to accelerate his entry into graduate work.
“I want to get (advanced degrees),” O’Donnell said. “And medical breakthroughs--all the stuff you hear on television about biological breakthroughs involve some knowledge of recombinant work, especially in the molecular field.”
Bernstein and Zyskind credit SDSU officials with providing them with the necessary equipment to operate the course. The kinds of scientific apparatus required for genetic engineering, even in a basic teaching lab, run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Although some machines have been donated from labs of other professors, the College of Life Sciences has spent close to $30,000 on equipment for the one class.
“And this is in a department which may have 60 faculty members and an equipment budget of less than $100,000 for the year,” Bernstein said. “So the commitment is obviously there.”