Today's Kid Scientists Will Invent Tomorrow's Cures
Deborah Dormady Letham, PhD

Today's Kid Scientists Will Invent Tomorrow's Cures

With so many children learning remotely, why not make their science classes fun with some hands-on experiments

Many scientists are VERY busy in the molecular biology labs right now.  Like so many laboratories they are testing for SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Some use the suggested US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) PCR reagents for research purposes, others make experimental panels consistent with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.

My local Methods Development colleagues are performing experiments as well, but not for testing human subjects. Rather we test the raw materials to rule out contamination in the human and animal cell lines used to produce new medications and biological-based therapeutics. It is one of many projects to detect adventitious agents. When we develop new tests or bring existing tests online in our laboratories, we are checking to characterize materials and to rule out safety issues. Safer Biologics Faster! That is our driving force to help get new medicines to market. Hope through science. And we work with some of the most dedicated young scientists who still come to the lab even in these unusual times. Lately, I’ve been thinking of ways to share our science with young students, most working remotely, in ways they can understand AND have fun.

Extracting Strawberry DNA with Crafty Chemistry

At home my teenagers roll their eyes at Dr. Mom starting kitchen chemistry experiments on a Saturday morning, but at least my friends with kids, including our many Girl Scouts, get EXCITED about SCIENCE! These days ALL Pennsylvania (and NY and NJ) elementary students are being home-schooled like many around the world. As a virtual volunteering effort, I’ve been asking fellow scientists to share some ooey-gooey fun experiments for the home. Today I extracted DNA from strawberries, very easy with simple reagents already in the house.

When we tried this experiment at Girl Scout camp we used a blender (and even snow to chill our rubbing alcohol), but at home one can simply take a giant strawberry (no leaves) and smoosh it up in a plastic bag, add a teaspoon of dish soap, dash of salt and a few tablespoons of water.

Filter the homogenized mush in a sieve or coffee filter and put the liquid into a clear glass (or test tube). Pour pre-chilled rubbing alcohol very slowly to layer on top of the strawberry liquid, about an inch. WATCH the DNA rise and cluster together. Then use a stick to lift it up and hold isolated DNA in your hand. This same DNA determines a strawberry’s color, juiciness, aroma and imagine that ALL the instructions for how the garden plant grows is ALL contained in one tiny strawberry seed, called an achene, which are those tiny specks on the surface of the red fleshy accessory fruit.

Isn’t that cool???!!! Why is the DNA white? There are proteins adhered to the DNA – proteins that tell which genes get translated or not and proteins to make new copies of DNA. Cells are living organisms through the orchestration of DNA, RNA, proteins, lipids and so many molecules we cannot see. Here is a chance to get your hands on the actual DNA.

I took photos this morning and wrote out the procedure to send to my friends with kids. I put it on Facebook and even shared with my son’s 10th grade science teacher (now let’s see if he HAS to do the experiment, ha-ha). This experiment is similar (but on a different scale) to the extraction of DNA and RNA nucleic acids which are used to detect COVID19 as well as tests spanning the gamut from tracing food-poisoning organisms to modern day forensics. The strawberry DNA we harvested is HUGE in volume comparison to the tiny amount of DNA/RNA needed from only a few cells in a throat-swab or speck of blood. Those experiments are often done in a plastic rack ”microwell plate” with one hundred tiny test tubes which fit the size of your hand.

Staying home (which is helping slow the spread of this COVID19 virus) is not any excuse for slowing down SCIENCE SHARING. There are scientists reaching across the globe to colleagues to share knowledge – and there are busy parents sharing science locally and socially. Kid scientists are thirsty for knowledge, now is the time to find fun enrichment learning that doesn’t come from a lecture or a quiz but is crucial in wiring the curiosity of the brain through the activities of the hands.

Children learning these days will become our future doctors and nurses on the frontline, our scientists developing testing for common ailments and the next pandemics.

Let’s Do Science!