Biotechnology Center awards $25,000 to WCU for genetics research outreach

CULLOWHEE – The North Carolina Biotechnology Center has awarded nearly $25,000 to Western Carolina University for equipment and supplies that will enable WCU students and high school students from the western half of the state to get some hands-on experience in molecular genetics research.

The new bench-top laboratory equipment will be utilized along with Western’s existing DNA sequencers to teach undergraduate and graduate chemistry courses at WCU. It also will be shared with interested high school students to give them a “jump start” toward possible post-secondary study and careers in the emerging fields of biotechnology and bioinformatics.

“For some time, the university has been interested in developing a biotechnology program, both for its students and as a means of providing the Western North Carolina region with new opportunities for economic growth,” said Wesley Bonds, the assistant professor of chemistry who is leading Western’s biotech efforts. “These purchases will make a real difference in WCU’s ability to offer students from our region the opportunity to participate in North Carolina’s biotechnology revolution,” Bonds said.

Many experts – including university representatives, business and industry leaders, and state and federal government officials – have called biotechnology and related fields “the next wave” in the world of science. Western’s location in one of the most biologically diverse regions on the planet make it a logical spot at which to conduct biotechnology-related research and spin off new biotech companies, Bonds said.

“The question has been how to begin?” he said. “One way is to train a workforce – a workforce that is biotechnology competent, a workforce that hails from WNC, and a workforce that wants to remain in the region.”

Bonds and several undergraduate students are currently involved in a project to determine the genetic sequence of the northern red oak tree, an effort that could lead to a better understanding of which genes cause faster wood growth or help trees survive drought and invasive insects. The research also could lead to the development of new forestry products and the formation of new jobs to create those products.

Western also is awaiting official word on an additional grant from the N.C. Biotechnology Center that, if approved, would fund a summer workshop to bring teachers from across the state to Western for an intensive biotechnology workshop.

Grant funding is particularly important because the increased interest in biotechnology and genomics comes at a time when decreasing state resources mean that fewer dollars are available to purchase equipment for classroom study and research, Bonds said.

Students from schools in Asheville, Franklin, Highlands, Statesville and Sylva already have signed up for a DNA sequencing outreach effort offered this semester by Western, and more schools are expected to participate. The students will meet for about six hours on a Saturday, sequencing a mutation of the human gene linked to nicotine addiction. They will then learn enough about bioinformatics to access the National Institutes of Health human gene bank via the Internet and compare their data with real human gene data.

Additional outreach courses will be offered in the spring and summer. For more information about the outreach effort, or any of Western’s biotechnology initiatives, contact Wes Bonds at (828) 227-3681, or via email at