PELLSTON — Undergraduate students at the University of Michigan Biological Station in northern Michigan just south of the Mackinac Bridge are running biotechnology experiments in a laboratory along Douglas Lake as part of a unique course featuring a combination of field-based research and modern technology.
They’re using CRISPR gene-editing technology on iconic pollinators to explore the emerging field of ecological evolutionary developmental biology as part of a four-week UMBS course titled Eco-Evo-Devo.
CRISPR is a tool that allows scientists to disable or alter specific sections of DNA in cells of living organisms.
Under the guidance of Dr. André Green, a UMBS instructor and an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at U-M, UMBS students in the summer 2023 term attempted to engineer a specific monarch butterfly mutation.
Their work examined whether a specific gene functions in monarchs as it does in other animals.
“Most of our work revolves around CRISPR-mediated gene knockouts in butterflies, which is really exciting, cutting-edge genetic work,” said Sam MacKinnon, a UMBS student and a junior at U-M in Ann Arbor this fall. “It is astoundingly simple compared to other genetic engineering techniques.”
The process involves machinery, pipettes and petri dishes.
“I think it’s awesome,” said Dorian Campillo, a UMBS student and a senior at U-M this fall who studies ecology and evolutionary biology. “It’s a great hands-on experience. Almost no students are going to get an experience like this, you know. I’m learning new things. I’m doing things that not many people in the world have done.”
Dr. Aimée Classen, UMBS director and a professor in the U-M Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, said it’s critical that students directly do research and engage in “extraordinary experiential learning opportunities” like the Eco-Evo-Devo course.
“The pursuit of scientific discovery is both awe-inspiring and urgent,” Classen said. “At this crucial juncture, we must understand the resiliency of our natural world, including the mesmerizing monarch butterflies, in the face of global change.”
Green studies the environmental and genetic basis of monarch butterfly migration and how migration has evolved.
“I’m absolutely fascinated with butterflies, in particular the monarch butterfly because it makes this amazing annual migration from southern Canada and the United States all the way down to these specific places in Mexico,” Green said. “How is that programmed within them in order to make that trip?”
Monarch butterflies are about half a gram in size — about the size of a paperclip — but they fly thousands of miles every year to the exact same locations.
At UMBS, Green said the more than 10,000-acre research and teaching campus in northern Michigan — founded in 1909, one of the nation’s largest and longest continuously operating field research stations — is an excellent location for students and scientists to learn and discover.
“I love the setting of the Biological Station because we see and appreciate the biodiversity that’s around us,” Green said. “But we also get to think a bit more deeply about: How does that biodiversity come to be?”
Eco-Evo-Devo students pursue questions about monarch butterfly development.
This summer they focused on a gene called Abdominal-A. It is one of several genes called “Hox” genes that are responsible for patterning animals.
“It’s involved in basically creating the back half or the bottom half of all animals,” Green said. “That was one of the really important concepts of the lab. That there are these genes that are not only important for humans or not only important for insects but they’re important for all animals and they function very similarly across all animals.”
Monarchs have a characteristic banding pattern — the yellow, white and black stripes. By altering the gene, the students predicted that they might cause changes to this pattern, specifically in the back of the caterpillar.
“If maybe some of those stripes become slanted or they create X’s, those are the types of changes that we were specifically looking for,” Green said. “Changing that pattern, that would indicate to us that we were able to mutate our gene or change our gene.”
“We’ve got our own caterpillars and we’re taking care of them every day, giving them new milkweed to feed on and just waiting for them to grow and see what results from CRISPR,” Campillo said.
Since this experiment has not been reported before, the 2023 summer term class didn’t know in advance what exactly would happen, but they could make a hypothesis — getting the immersive experience of professional researchers exploring the unknown in a contained, protected environment.
“We’re taking some of our hatched caterpillars and we are reading their DNA to see if mutations we were trying to induce were induced. But it looks like, in at least a few cases, we do have mutations,” MacKinnon said.
By the end of the four-week course it was possible that they successfully engineered a genetic mutation — a few caterpillars showed suspicious banding patterns. However, Green said the class was unable to definitively prove that the changes were due to their genetic mutations before the end of the course.
Eco-Evo-Devo gave students a real view of the research process — sharing how science can feature setbacks that, as many researchers know, are prerequisites for long-term success.
Watch the UMBS video about the Eco-Evo-Devo course.