Genome Sequencing and the Lowly Undergrad

It’s not every day you get to sequence a genome (unless you run a genomics facility for a living, in which case you probably sequence more genomes in a day than you think is appropriate).

More specifically, it’s not every day an undergrad gets to sequence a genome. Undergrads are relegated to cartoon demonstrations of Illumina sequencing, on a 10 foot tall projection in front of a lecture hall full of half-asleep third year bio majors. They get the incredibly fun job of remembering which “Next” of Next Next Next Next Generation Sequencing we’re on. Not interesting. No wonder people find biology class boring. But it’s a different story when you get to go into the lab and do it.

My genomics class at the University of Edinburgh made it possible for ~150 undergraduates to sequence Clostridium difficile genomes that had never been sequenced before.

Real science. Oh, the thrill of finding out things that have never been found out before! It makes the practical report that much more interesting.

And I’m not even kidding.

At the end of the day, we moan about turning in the meagre 1800 word report for its 30 March due date, but I hope that more than a few of us have stopped to think just what it is we’ve done, and what we get to write. This is what we’re training for. The time, money, and tears we’ve put into our educations–they’re all so that one day, we can do this, except more often, and with greater alacrity.

As undergrads, we’re used to being shunted aside. The money is reserved for the money-earners: the PhD students and top-notch researchers who win the awards, make the publications, and reel in the glory and honour for our fine institution. But genome sequencing is expensive, and our university made an investment in our learning anyway. Even though we might screw up. Even though our data might be messy. Even though we might not understand exactly what we’re doing. We saw the process through from start to finish, saw our C. difficile genomes and annotated them, and had the advice of skilled bioinformaticians all along the way. I’m proud of this university, and thankful. I feel as though I’ve had a true learning experience. For somebody who spends the majority of her time at university, you’d think I would get to say that more.

We chose to study biology for a reason–at least, I did. It’s because I get to look at these data and realise just how much of it I don’t understand, how complex they are. This is beautiful. This is amazing. I can make discoveries with these data, I can wonder at the extraordinary mechanism of it all. What better way to learn could I possibly hope for?

I wear my data on my sleeve.Well, tshirts of our sequencing data to commemorate the experience, I suppose.


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