2023.8.30 Misc. High School Student Research Laboratory Tour (Hirose Laboratory)

Date August 8, 2023 (Tuesday)
Hosted by RNA Biofunction Laboratory〈Prof. HIROSE Tetsuro〉
School Name/Number of Participants Hyogo Prefectural Ono High School / 8 participants

This year, the laboratory once again organized a tailored tour for high school students, led by Professor Hirose and his team. The laboratory's focus is on "Non-coding RNA," a topic currently receiving significant research attention. Non-coding RNA refers to RNA that is not translated into proteins. Many mysteries surround this field, making it a subject of global interest among biologists. What makes it so captivating, and how is it being investigated? What does the role of a researcher entail, in the first place? How did high school students perceive all of this? Let’s find out more about the tour itself.

Exploring the Genomic Era: 21st Century Advancements

It all began with a simple question: "What is 'genome'?" You might have come across this term in your textbooks, and there are two crucial concepts to understand: "Children inherit traits from their parents" and "Frogs give birth to baby frogs." Once you grasp these ideas, the fields of genetics and genomics don't seem so daunting. Professor Hirose was genuinely impressed by the depth of today's high school textbooks. He guided the students on a whirlwind journey through topics commonly encountered in high school biology, such as "cells," "genetic blueprints," "evolution," "DNA," "mutations," and more, mixing in some anecdotes and insights unique to graduate-level discussions.

There was also a segment that aimed to help participants understand the role of genes through a quiz focused on decoding the genetic code. The challenge was to figure out what kind of proteins were encoded by the fragments of the genome they were given, or whether there was no coding at all. It was a bit like a game of chance, where you couldn't predict the outcome. Each participant acted as a decoding device for the processes of "transcription" and "translation."

Considering that there are around 20,000 different types of proteins in the human body alone, it was quite exciting to see the wide variety of proteins, both in terms of their shapes and functions, popping out of the genome – spanning from animals to plants.

Have you ever wondered when and where proteins are actually produced, and how their production is controlled? It turns out that a significant portion of the genome doesn't code for proteins, often referred to as the "dark matter" of the genome. And it's non-coding RNA, derived from these regions, that holds the key to this process. As they say, "genes have a role beyond just protein synthesis." This led to a deeper discussion of research.

One intriguing point brought up was that the more complex an organism becomes, the more "dark matter" you find in its genome. Professor Hirose even proposed a hypothesis suggesting that non-coding RNA plays a vital role in supporting the complexity of living organisms.

Understanding the Role of the Researcher

What does it mean to be a 'researcher' or a 'scientist'? For biologists, it often starts with a deep passion for living organisms or a genuine love for biology itself. They make their way to the lab day in and day out, conducting experiments from morning till night. Amidst the trial and error, there are those moments when they realize, 'I hold a truth that no one else in the world knows,' and once you experience that, it's said that conducting experiments becomes a source of joy rather than a burden. Professor Hirose expressed this with genuine enthusiasm, describing it as a creative profession where you have the privilege of making new discoveries.

Natural scientists are individuals who seek to understand the workings of nature and convey them in a comprehensible way. Their career path often involves starting at university, then further training in graduate school before they begin their journey. Listening to researchers' stories may inspire students to pursue this path. They might also be surprised to discover that researchers are always keen to conduct experiments, even on Sundays or while traveling.

Questions about handling challenges when experiments don't yield results also came up. How do researchers make "discoveries"? Professor Hirose highlighted the importance of assessing what can be uncovered and finding the most intriguing aspects within limited time constraints.

How are experiments conducted? After the lecture, students were guided through the laboratory by graduate student Daiki Kohsho. The lab was equipped with devices for cell culture and microscopes for studying cellular structures, all of which were quite intriguing.

Participants learned about the kind of data these tools can provide and the ongoing discoveries in the lab. Recently, researchers have been able to artificially create clusters of the genome's dark matter inside cells and study their functions. Genome science is becoming even more exciting. Professor Hirose is eagerly anticipating the research that high school students aiming to become scientists will pursue in graduate school.

In our graduate school, we conduct ongoing laboratory introductions for high schools, including those designated as "Super Science High Schools," from both within and outside Osaka prefecture. Through our lab-specific programs, we strive to deepen students’ understanding of science and research.