Molecular biology - it's in the news every day whether anyone realizes it or not. It searches for the source of the salmonella outbreak once blamed on tomatoes, diagnoses illnesses, solves crimes, helps produce medications and the food we eat, even brings us designer pets.
"The whole biology field is moving to the molecular aspect," said Dr. Stephen Fields, a former senior research scientist at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation who came to East Central University in 2007 to develop a molecular biology program.
"Anybody in biology is going to need to know molecular techniques," said the ECU assistant professor of biology.
Molecular biology mainly deals with understanding the interactions between the systems of a cell, including the interactions between DNA, RNA and protein biosynthesis, and learning how the interactions are regulated. Biotechnology is the use of microorganisms such as bacteria or yeasts or biological substances such as enzymes to perform specific industrial or manufacturing processes.
Fields and other ECU biology professors developed the molecular biology program as an additional concentration for a bachelor's degree in biology. Unlike many other universities, he said, the ECU program will emphasize a hands-on application to biotechnology because most of the classes will have lab components.
"Undergraduates at large universities don't really get hands-on experience because their classes are so big and there's no lab space to accommodate them," Fields explained. "The only way to get that experience is through independent study with a researcher and that doesn't happen that often.
"So it will be a pretty unique experience for students who come here. They will get hands-on training."
Fields said a new molecular biology research lab in the works at ECU will mimic research labs at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in Oklahoma City.
"A molecular biology lab is more of a mindset," he said. "A research lab technician is more mobile and moves between a computer and the actual experiments."
In other biology classes, students are more likely to be sitting in a classroom getting instruction from a professor and don't have as much mobility, he added.
Fields introduces new classes each semester as the first students move through the four-year program. He hopes to have 15 to 20 majors by next year and eventually 50 majors.
Graduates can find jobs in Oklahoma and elsewhere in genetics, agribusiness, medicine, pharmaceuticals, crime investigation and straight research. They also can find graduate programs that will pay their tuition or offer them generous stipends, he said.
Viewers of the CSI television programs know that "every law enforcement agency has a forensics unit," he said.
In medicine, molecular biology is used in gene therapy to treat certain illnesses and to diagnose illnesses and various disorders by using DNA to identify the pathogens.
"It is actually cheaper to identify DNA sequences in a lab than to use antibodies like we used to do," Fields said. "The patient may not realize this is how his disease or illness was diagnosed."
In pharmaceuticals, bio-engineered technology produces medications such as insulin, once isolated from pig blood, now made by bacteria.
"Agriculture is reliant on molecular biology," Fields said. "Genetically modified crops are responsible for a lot of the productivity we have in this country."
And there are those designer pets, such as green cats that Japanese researchers tried to market, he said.
"There are a number of ethical concerns," he said, "and most molecular biology classes include an ethical bent."
More information about the molecular biology program is available from Fields at 580-559-5792 or at email@example.com.
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