New URI biotechnology course introduces students to applications, controversies, ethics of DNA use

Media Contact: Todd McLeish 874-7892

New URI biotechnology course introduces
students to applications, controversies,
ethics of DNA use

Teachers and general public encouraged to register

KINGSTON, R.I. — December 20, 2002 — “Biotechnology is embedded in our everyday life, but most people don’t know it. And what most people hear about biotech is controversial,” said URI Assistant Professor Marta Gomez-Chiarri.

That’s why she and Visiting Associate Professor Albert Kausch have launched a course at the University of Rhode Island to give students an introduction to the subject of biotechnology. “Issues in Biotechnology” is a new three-credit course aimed at teaching undergraduate students and the general public about DNA, genetics, and “how life works,” as Kausch describes it, as well as the many current applications of biotechnology and the related ethical and social issues.

“The course is designed to provide the basics of biotechnology so students can participate in informed debate on the subject,” Kausch said. “We are encouraging people from a variety of backgrounds to register for it because that will make for better dialogue in class.”
The professors are especially encouraging high school and middle school teachers to sign up for the course. Kausch is creating teaching modules out of the course lectures to help secondary school teachers introduce biotechnology into their classrooms. “My ambition,” said Kausch, “is to get these modules into high schools nationwide.” He is in the process of establishing a non-profit organization to do just that.

Most of the course will focus on the various applications of DNA and biotechnology. Discussion of medical applications will include the use of stem cells, gene therapy and xenotransplantation (transplanting animal organs into humans). while other classes will address agricultural, forensic, marine, and pharmaceutical uses of biotechnology. The course will conclude with discussions of the ethical and social implications of biotechnology, as well as descriptions of career opportunities in the biotech field.

Kausch said the first third of the class will be the most philosophically exciting. “Understanding DNA is as fundamental as the solar system,” he said. “The first few weeks of class should leave people in awe of how life works. It will challenge the way people view life.”

Kausch is director and vice president of research at Hybrigene Inc., a West Kingston-based biotechnology company that uses genetic modifications to make improvements in rice and turfgrass. He also teaches in the URI Department of Cell and Molecular Biology. Gomez-Chiarri teaches in the URI Department of Fisheries, Animal and Veterinary Science and conducts research on DNA vaccines to prevent bacterial diseases in fish. She also studies the diseases affecting oysters and consults with the State of Rhode Island and local fishermen on fish and shellfish pathology.

“Issues in Biotechnology” will be held on Thursdays from 4 to 6:30 p.m. There are no prerequisite courses required to register. For additional information, call Kausch at 874-7121 or Gomez-Chiarri at 874-2917.