Heidi Stahl ’17 is spending the summer researching the science behind regeneration.
Stahl is a rising senior majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry, psychology and English. She wanted to take on a research project over the summer while she was staying in Syracuse for a volunteer program. She approached Patrick Yurco,Ph.D., associate professor of biology, since his current research on retinal regeneration aligned with her own interests.
This summer, Stahl and Yurco are investigating the mechanisms behind retinal regeneration in zebrafish. Because zebrafish can regenerate their eyes, hearts, spinal cord and other tissues, they are a great model organism from which to learn. Particularly, they are researching Clustered Regular Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR, a genetic editing technique that is an acquired immunity in prokaryotes. CRISPR recognizes foreign genetic elements and cuts them out by using a nuclease; it knocks out and inactivates specific genes. Using CRISPR allows researchers to perform subsequent observations into the functions and mechanisms behind the gene of interest. “We want to learn the genetic and cellular mechanisms behind retinal regeneration so we can apply them to a human model,” says Stahl. “Our ultimate outcome for this year is to successfully use CRISPR to knock down our gene of interest, so we can research any subsequent effects and see if these genes play a large role in regeneration.” Most of her summer so far has been devoted to literary research on CRISPR to ensure she has the necessary understanding and tools to begin procedures in the fall. “I’m so proud of all that I’ve learned about CRISPR this summer. I had to read through about fifty research articles, and now I can confidently start trying to design gRNAs for each of our genes and order the supplies that are needed for the fall.”
Stahl is a pre-med concentrator and knows the importance of research in advancements in healthcare. “Studying retinal regeneration relates to so many pathologies of the eye that are present in humans, like macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy,” says Stahl. “The retina itself is a highly complicated, interesting part of the body; it was my favorite thing to learn about in my anatomy class. While I would love to say I would be here when it is time to apply this research to humans, it most likely will not be for a while, although that is the ultimate goal. If we could find exactly how zebrafish regenerated their retina, we could use that information to help people that have lost their vision because of retinal damage. Right now, because we are still very much in an exploratory phase, the impact of our research is considerably ‘small-scale,’ but once we pin-point a gene, its products, and how they come into play, we can apply the information and hopefully then have a ‘large-scale’ impact!”