Stephanie Wang and Amanda Figueroa work with Ms. Malinchak with the condor DNA. Picture taken by Priscila Manzo.
Charter Oak High School

Charter Oak Biology works for a good cause

On the week of Oct. 17, Charter Oak’s IB Biology HL 1 class, taught by Ms. Jessica Malinchak, worked with California condor DNA from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. The students were to determine the gender of the condor from the DNA that they were given and used the same techniques that scientists use in a lab environment.

“I chose [the San Diego Zoo] because they offer the opportunity to rent out expensive equipment to students and it gives them the opportunity to do real research,” said Ms. Malinchak. “Students get skills and they get exposed to what people are getting paid to do in these labs and it helps with career skills and college courses.”

This lab had an entire week dedicated to it because of the lengthy process that is required to determine condor gender. But one may ask, why it is so important to determine the gender of the condor? Why not just look at the condor’s reproductive organs to see if it is a female or male? Well, the problem with that is that condors do not have external reproductive organs; thus, scientists rely on the DNA to determine gender. Not only does this process help with gender identification, but it can also help determine what condors are carriers of chondrodystrophy, a lethal disease that about 9 percent of condors have.

The condor DNA is extracted from the condors through their blood cells and then goes through a process called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR. There are four steps to the process: denature, anneal, extend, and repeat. The denature process is when the hydrogen bonds that are holding together the DNA strand break, then the anneal process adds a “primer” that helps the DNA polymerase, “[an enzyme] that create[s] DNA molecules by assembling nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA” according to, know when to start making the new DNA strand, which is the extend process. The last step is to repeat the whole process for the rest of the DNA fragments.

On day one of the lab, students got to learn about the California condor which was on the brink of extinction in the 1980’s with only less than half a dozen left in the entire world. They also learned why the condors were slowly deteriorating in population and what measures were taken to help the population grow again.

Ms. Malinchak said, “I want them to become aware of their own actions and see how humans affect the ecosystem and what they could do to alleviate human impact.” Now, there are more than 230 condors in the wild.

On day two, students learned about the PCR process and learned on how to use micro pipettes, a lab tool used to transfer liquids from one place to another. On day three students started to begin the PCR process and learned how to determine the gender of their condor through gel electrophoresis, which sorts the DNA fragments to tell whether the condor is female or male.

Sadly, on the following day when the biology class was to check on their DNA, the DNA was not visible on the gel plate, so students could not tell the gender of their condor. Some reasons why the DNA did not show up on the plates, according to Ms. Malinchak, was that the shipping may have taken too long and so heat may have damaged the DNA being delivered.

“Science is not perfect and it takes multiple trails to get a result,” said Ms. Malinchak.

Isabel Kartouch, junior, stated that she thought it was really interesting and she was excited to work with DNA because she never worked with it before. She was also curious on how it would turn out with the results.

Ms. Malinchak said, “I was really excited and I really wanted [the students] to see if it was a boy or a girl. Being exposed to real research is really important to me and I hope that students learned from the technique.”

I, also a student in Ms. Malinchak’s biology class, was very excited to work with DNA. There was pressure on the class because the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research will use our results. I had a lot of fun and I enjoyed it very much.

The IB Biology HL class is planning on taking a joint field trip with the IB Environmental Studies class in December to the San Diego Safari Park to work at the park’s lab and get to see scientists at work with the DNA.