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Student Extracts Sample From ‘Original Nittany Lion’ For DNA Analysis

A team of student researchers is working to sequence the Nittany Lion genome. Maya Evanitsky, the team’s lead researcher, extracted a sample from “The Original Nittany Lion” on display in the All Sports Museum this afternoon.

Evanitsky applied to work on the project last year. She saw an email asking for students interested in working with “Anicent DNA” and was instantly intrigued. George (PJ) Perry, assistant professor of anthropology and biology, is the faculty coordinator of the project. The team began brainstorming research topics this fall.

“He (Perry) heard there was a team at the University of Maryland sequencing the terrapin,” Evanitsky said. “So we thought, ‘Why not sequence the Nittany Lion?'”

The lion on display in the museum was killed by Samuel Brush in 1856. Although you’d never know by looking at it, Brush’s grandchildren used the stuffed mountain lion as a toy. In order to make the sample look more realistic, deer fur, chemicals, and plastic were used to restore the stately lion to its original glory in the ’90s.

“The logic behind taxidermy is not the best for science, it’s more about preservation, which is unfortunate in this case,” Evanitsky said.

The number one concern with the sample extracted is the possibility of contamination. Deer DNA, bacterial DNA, human DNA, or any other “weird stuff” that may have come into contact with the sample could all skew the results.

“This has been poked, proded, and treated so it’s chemically very fragile,” Evanitsky said. Perry was on hand with Evanitsky as she worked to extract the sample.

Evanitsky with the sample she successfully extracted.
An up-close of the sample extracted from the symbol of our best.

With the samples collected from the Nittany Lion, and other taxidermied lions, the team will use the ancient DNA lab in the physics building to sequence the mtDNA genome. To avoid contamination, the lab is isolated from other DNA research. Once the sequencing is complete, they’ll compare the sequences to those from living mountain lions on the west coast, and panthers in Florida. The end goal is to have a more precise evolutionary history of mountain lions in the United States.

“We’re hoping to use the genetic data and compare them to see how diverse the species have become,” Evanitsky said. “The genetic diversity level is basically a proxy for the size of the population that used to exist.”

Evanitsky is a junior majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology. Her tentative timeline is to have all of the samples collected by mid-June, and complete the sequencing and analysis by the end of August. Evanitsky will write up her findings for her Schreyer thesis. The team of researchers includes students majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology, wildlife and fisheries science, ecology, immunology and infectious disease, and statistics.

Lab Mar 2015 1
The team of researchers working to sequence the Nittany Lion genome.

To read more about the project, and to help fund the team’s research efforts, you can visit their website.

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