Undergraduate Research: A Summer-Long Immersion in Molecular Biology

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Senior biology major Maciel Porto was one of 28 Norwich University undergraduates awarded Summer Research Fellowships to explore diverse topics across the arts, sciences and professional fields. Developed by the university’s Office of Academic Research, the competitive, six- and ten-week fellowships are funded by university endowments dedicated to supporting student academic investigation.
Norwich University Office of Communications

September 17, 2015

This summer, rising senior Maciel Porto spent 10 weeks in the lab investigating leptin receptors in the avian hypothalamus and their potential role in regulating appetite.

The hypothalamus is a small area of the brain that plays a big role regulating energy balance, body temperature, satiety, heart rhythm, sleep patterns and other essential body functions.

Activated by the hormone leptin, leptin receptors are gene-encoded proteins connected to fat metabolism.

Did decreasing food supplies influence the genetic expression of leptin receptors over time in chicken embryos? That was a question the biology major from San Antonio, Tex., wanted to explore.

Porto focused his summer research project on measuring leptin and leptin receptors in the hypothalamuses of embryonic chickens between 8 and 14 days old.

“In avian models leptin and its receptor, theoretically, have the same functions as those within mammals,” Porto notes. “The mystery to the receptors presence within the chicken genome presents many questions.”

Porto worked in the lab of his faculty advisor, Assistant Professor of Biology Megan Doczi, a neuroscientist who also studies avian hypothalamus tissue to investigate the developmental regulation of potassium ion channels in neurons.

Porto’s own research employed state-of-the-art procedures used in molecular biology labs around the world.

Starting with micro-dissection of embryonic chicken brains to extract the hypothalamus, Porto isolated RNA from the tissue samples. He then synthesized what’s known as copy, or C-DNA, to determine if genes for leptin receptors were expressed.

Porto then tested c-DNA primers, the “short segments of base pairs of nucleotides that kind of align with a specific section of a gene,” Porto says.

Using a procedure called agarose gel electrophoresis, Porto then separated the genetic material by molecular size.

Adding ethidium bromide enabled Porto to tag DNA fragments and fluoresce them under UV light, creating a visual bar code for the genes expressed in the sample cell tissue.

While Porto initially identified a difference in the abundance of leptin receptors in chicken embryos that were 8 and 14 days old, he found no statistically significant change in gene expression between younger and old embryos overall.

“This proposes a more in depth study of relative change of LEPR gene expression, which would include more samples for each time period,” Porto concluded in a final research paper on his study.

Porto says his summer research fellow experience taught him the value of even the smallest data discovery and the volume of contributions required to solve big research questions.

“I also realized that although my findings were astronomical in my eyes, this was only a ten-week timeline, in which is a fraction compared to other researchers,” he says.

“It put things into perspective on how much work and dedication it really takes to provide a contribution within the research profession.”

Porto says he plans to enter a research or graduate program to study immunology when he graduates from Norwich this spring.

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