From whale jaw bones to fossilized dinosaur skulls, the collections of the Canadian Museum of Nature brim with interesting artifacts of the natural world. On the smaller side you’ll find shrimp-like creatures in jars, tiny beetles pinned in tidy rows, and even diamonds and rubies still locked in their rocky substrates.

Beautiful and captivating objects for sure! But, rather obvious in their charismatic charms, don’t you think?

In the museum’s DNA Lab, we concern ourselves with smaller things: microscopic strings of molecules, simple in structure but rich in information. Have you ever seen an instruction book on how to build a blue whale? Look no further than a single blue whale cell. Inside this cell is a complete copy of the beast’s DNA—a molecular how-to guide for building a whale. Awesome? You bet!

Student Frankie Janzen looks at a small tube, as he holds it over desk.
Mad scientist? Not really. Francesco “Frankie” Janzen is among a number of students who use the museum’s DNA lab to study relationships among species. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Every day in the DNA Lab, we venture inside the micro-world of the cell and retrieve DNA molecules from the small package of the nucleus. With the tools of biochemistry, we then decode parts of the DNA molecule to answer questions about the nature of life.
Researchers at the museum tackle fundamental questions about the natural world. How many unique forms of life (or species) are there? How are these unique forms related to one another?

Elegant sandwort plant (left) and graphic with sequence data of DNA.
From a plant to its DNA code: on the left is an elegant sandwort plant in the Arctic and on the right are DNA sequence data generated from a tissue sample of this plant. With data like these, students and researchers can build trees of relationship for groups of species. This helps to answer questions about the evolutionary history of life on the planet. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature.

DNA is a powerful tool for answering these questions. Finding unexpected DNA codes can lead to the discovery of new species. The DNA code also retains signatures of the evolutionary past, so it can be used to construct trees of evolutionary relationship—diagrams that give us detailed ideas of how humans are related to warthogs, or pine trees to pond weed.

Three photos of lab equipment on countertops.
To decode DNA sequence, students and researchers use these tools found in the Canadian Museum of Nature’s DNA Lab. Thermal cyclers (left), pipettes (middle), and gel electrophoresis rigs (right) are used daily. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature.

On the frontlines of these adventures in discovery are students. In the DNA Lab, like in university labs across the planet, students are grunts who churn out the mystery-solving data. Remove students from the research equation and scientific discovery would grind to a halt!

Two of the many students who work in the museum’s DNA Lab are Francesco “Frankie” Janzen and Shan Leung. (Both Frankie and Shan will be in the lab to talk to the public during the Open House of the museum’s research & collections building on October 19.)

Frankie, formerly obsessed with dinosaurs, is now into non-extinct beings – especially catfish. He also has a thing for plants and is currently figuring out how some curious-looking species of sedge from Southeast Asia fit into the sedge family tree. Are they the descendants of an ancient group of sedges? Frankie is an ace at the polymerase chain reaction. This is not a new dance craze but rather the most important biochemical reaction in the lab.

Shan—just back from working in a lab in Iqaluit, Nunavut—is on a path towards a career in medicine. One stop on this path has him in the DNA Lab studying two closely-related Arctic plant species. Ross’ sandwort (Minuartia rossii) and elegant sandwort (Minuartia elegans) are sometimes hard to tell apart and exactly how they are related is not clear. Shan is seeking to solve this hinterland who’s who with the help of DNA.

Student Shan Leung leans over sheets with specimens of both Ross’ and elegant sandwort plants.
Shan Leung takes a close look at specimens of both Ross’ and elegant sandwort. The relationship between these two Arctic species is not well understood. Shan is generating DNA sequences to help solve this mystery. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Frankie and Shan are working on two of the many ongoing museum projects that unlock the discovery power of the DNA molecule, an awesome thing that comes in a small package.

On Saturday, October 19, come to the DNA Lab during the Open House of the museum’s research & collections building to meet Frankie and Shan. They are keen to explain how they are using DNA to better understand the natural world.