Missouri Southern State University cut the ribbon Tuesday on a new DNA laboratory that features cutting-edge technology for the students and local businesses who will be able to use it.

Students will gain hands-on experience by learning to operate the testing equipment, prepare samples and analyze results, said Gerald Schlink, who teaches microbiology and genetics classes at Missouri Southern. He said equipment in the lab can sample and sequence DNA and look for genes in DNA. As an example, students can take a sample of a soybean plant, extract its DNA and test it to determine whether it has been genetically modified and by how much, he said.

The lab could also aid in recruitment by attracting college students interested in science, he said. Following on the success of many of the university’s fairs and camps for local schoolchildren, the science department could be host for a DNA boot camp or science fair for K-12 students to introduce them to Missouri Southern and its programs, he said.

Training offered through the lab will also be an asset to the business community. Its focus on food testing will allow businesses to train on the equipment and become familiar with the importance of DNA testing to the food industry.

“The aspect of that for business is very large,” said Rob O’Brian, president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce.

Steve Russell, director of the Innovation Center, previously said the lab could help grow the region’s life sciences and manufacturing industries, which are two areas that the state government has targeted in recent years for economic stimulation. He said food manufacturing is one of Southwest Missouri’s largest industries, with approximately 60 companies in the Joplin area.

Missouri Southern’s lab can help the region become a leader in food safety testing, helping local companies ensure that their products are free of bacteria and other pathogens, he said in August when the university’s governing board approved the lab.

Because the field of forensics is “highly regulated,” the lab will not be certified for crime processing, Schlink said.

Much of the basic equipment was initially used in Missouri Southern’s crime lab, which opened in 1971 and processed 2,000 cases per year for local law enforcement agencies until it merged with the Missouri State Highway Patrol crime lab in 2007. But the transition to DNA testing as it relates to food safety should be no problem, said Philip Whittle, a former Missouri Southern chemistry teacher and crime lab director.

“There’s a lot of work going on in many different fields, and the basic instrumentation in there can be used for that as well,” he said.

Sheniece Smith, a senior biochemistry major from the British Virgin Islands, demonstrated some of the lab equipment for media after Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting. She said she was drawn to DNA after taking Schlink’s microbiology class.

“I’ve always liked DNA,” she said. “It’s fascinating to me. It’s the code of life.”

Smith said she hopes to get a job working in the lab, which she expects will prepare her for advanced studies in microbiology.

“I think it will familiarize me with the different techniques” used in DNA analysis, she said. “It’s an experience, more than anything else, to make me more comfortable going into grad school.”

Community partners

Missouri Southern State University’s new DNA lab was created in partnership with the Joseph Newman Innovation Center.

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Emily Younker is the managing editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.