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RFH Project Terrapin Dives Deeper into Genetic Mysteries



RFH Project Terrapin Dives Deeper into Genetic Mysteries

RFH students from two different AP science classes join forces to conduct genetics testing.      Ms. Kilar oversees the work of her AP Biology student during the lab.

The Rumson Fair Haven Regional High School Science Department is challenging students to step away from the books and test the waters, quite literally.  On November 26, 2019, 36 juniors and seniors in advanced science classes conducted genetic testing on terrapin hatchlings as part of RFH Project Terrapin, which started in 2017.  Throughout the school day, students worked in lab groups to test the DNA of 18 deceased terrapin hatchlings for the CFTR gene; this gene provides instructions for making a protein called the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator and is often associated with cystic fibrosis in humans.  The testing consisted of students using the MiniPCR device to perform PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) on the hatchling DNA. Primers that specifically target the CFTR gene were used to makes copies of the gene so that it could be visualized through electrophoresis. The process uses an electrical current and an agarose gel to separate DNA fragments by size. In this case, students were looking to see how the CFTR gene compares to a normal CFTR gene and the CFTR gene with a deletion.  As science often goes, readable results were not achieved for all of the test subjects; however, students were able to visualize the CFTR gene for some of the terrapins.  


RFH Project Terrapin is overseen by Michael Haughwout and Valerie Kilar, two biology teachers with an interest in genetics, in an effort to promote awareness and conservation of the diamondback terrapin, which is a brackish water turtle species native to New Jersey and present in the local Shrewsbury Bay and Navesink River.  After overharvesting and massive population decline, the species was given protected status by conservation programs. Since its inception, RFH Project Terrapin (a chapter of the Project Terrapin program at MATES in Ocean County that Mr. Haughwout created) has been conducting a longitudinal study to assess the local population, to genetically test the species as a whole and to assist in restoring local populations through hatchling headstart programs.  Many RFH students have not only contributed to this project in science classes but through outreach in the community as well.  


Ms. Kilar explains that as far as they know, this is a novel study in northern diamondback terrapins: “One of our initiatives for RFH Project Terrapin is to better understand the overall health and abundance of the terrapin population. One of our questions in regards to their health is, are there any genetic abnormalities that may contribute to terrapin mortality? Two years ago, after students completed a lab in which they used PCR and electrophoresis to observe the CFTR gene of a person with cystic fibrosis, we wondered if this gene is also present in terrapins and, if so, are there variances in the DNA that may affect the function of the CFTR protein? We know that the CFTR protein, as well as other ion transporters, are necessary for osmoregulation in many brackish water animal species. Now, we have verified that the CFTR gene is present in diamondback terrapins and now we want to see if there are variances in the size of the gene.”  


Mr. Haughwaut and Ms. Kilar, project coordinators, plan to further engage students in hands-on labs, genetics and science exploration through continued testing of more hatchlings, and healthy adult terrapins for comparison. Through the Rumson Fair Haven Regional High School website, anyone can assist in data collection for the project by providing information on the local population of terrapins, nests and crossing sites that may be visible.  Please email for more information, and visit the school website to learn more about RFH Project Terrapin and to aid in their conservation efforts of diamondback terrapins along the Navesink and Shrewsbury Rivers.


Sarah Fitzgerald, RFH Press Release Writer or 732-842-1597 x. 277