Rhode Island Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC)

Making Innovation Central to Rhode Island's Future Gina M. Raimondo, Governor

The Secret Role Mass Transit Plays in Gene Sequencing

Published on May 30, 2008

Few people are aware of it, but the 66 and 26 bus lines, running from Tower Hill in Kingston to Providence‚??s Kennedy Plaza, are crucial elements of statewide scientific collaboration in Rhode Island. The professor at the center of this unusual development is modest about his contribution.

‚??I am a resource for my colleagues,‚?Ě says Dr. Eric Roberts, an assistant biology professor at Rhode Island College in Providence, whose research focuses on how plants use cellulose to make wood.

Roberts has turned the Ocean State‚??s public transport system into an instrument for science by carrying DNA samples for his colleagues‚?? research on the bus to the gene sequencing facility at the University of Rhode Island (URI) in Kingston. He chose the bus as his method of transport for a simple reason: he takes it to work.

But if you ride the 66 or 26 lines with Roberts ‚?? you‚??ll have to get up early to do it; he leaves Tower Hill at 6 a.m. most days ‚?? don‚??t expect any scientific equipment. Roberts carries the samples, which are as safe as the DNA in an apple or the human body, in his backpack.

Gene Sequencing

Gene sequencing is the process of analyzing DNA samples to determine their structure. The structure, or order of the nucleotide pairs that form every organism‚??s DNA, describes the way in which organisms function. In recent years, DNA sequencing has become a key element of research in many scientific disciplines.

DNA samples are sent for sequencing in tubes or small plastic trays. The trays ‚?? one of which a colleague dropped off for Roberts during our interview ‚?? are a few inches long by a few inches wide and have nearly 100 small, round openings on top that lead to cone-shaped reservoirs holding DNA samples in liquid.

At the end of the bus trip, Roberts doesn‚??t deliver the DNA samples directly to URI. Instead, they take a detour to his home, where he transfers them to his wife, Dr. Alison Roberts, a biology professor at URI, who takes them to the gene sequencing facility on her way to work.

The Excitement of Discovery

Colorful bus passes dating back to 2006 are wedged into the corkboard that hangs in Roberts‚?? office. He‚??s been transporting samples for his colleagues a couple of times a week since late in that year.
‚??I knew that my colleagues were sending stuff down there and I told them I live down there and my wife walks past the building ‚?¶ it saves a day or two each way,‚?Ě he says.

He understands the desire to get results as quickly as possible.

‚??There‚??s the potential for great happiness and discovery in (the sequencing results). If you can get your data a little faster, that‚??s really nice. I hate waiting for sequences to come back.‚?Ě
Given such a public means of transport, the bags taped to his backpack sometimes spur curiosity in his fellow commuters.

‚??People have asked about what that is on my backpack and it‚??s an opportunity to explain a little bit about some of the research that goes on,‚?Ě he says, adding that the bus drivers haven‚??t noticed his extra cargo.

Moving Science Forward

Roberts sees the help he offers as ‚??part of this grand circle of collaboration. You never how you‚??re going to get paid back, but you always do somehow in the end.‚?Ě

Transporting DNA samples for his colleagues is ‚??my contribution to moving science forward,‚?Ě Roberts says. In this case, science is literally being moved, one bus transfer at a time.

Interview and Story by Sam Costello

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