Photo of Dr. Reiss

Dr. Rebecca A. Reiss
Associate Professor of Biology
New Mexico Tech
801 Leroy Place, Socorro, NM 87801
Phone: (575) 835-5347
FAX: (575) 835-5668

Pine tree parts in Midden
Atomic Force Microscope image of ancient DNA fragment
Dr. Reiss meets with students
Numt electrophoresis gel
Dr. Reiss with students in Genetics Lab
Dr. Reiss has been with the Biology Department since 1995. Her main interest involves looking at population-level evolution at the molecular level. She specializes in ancient DNA, and is expanding her interest in the use of Bioinformatics.

One of the more unusual sources of ancient DNA are packrat middens. These are balls of plant and animal matter that a packrat has collected and "preserved" with urine. Some middens found by geologists are nearly 40,000 years old. Dr. Reiss and her graduate students are using Atomic Force Microscopy and Flash Pyrolysis Gas Chromatography/ Mass Spectrophotometry to establish the condition of the DNA contained in the middens. The goal is to eventually extract and sequence DNA from midden beetle fossils. By comparing sequence data from middens found at different locations and times, she hopes to track where beetle populations went as Ice Age glaciers covered North America.

When did the human lineage branch off from other primates? One clue to the answer may lie in sequences of mitochondrial DNA that have, over time, migrated to the nucleus (these are called Numt's). One such Numt, found on human chromosome 5, looks more like squirrel monkey DNA than human mitochondrial DNA. This may show that this particular DNA migration took place before humans branched off from primates. Dr. Reiss and her students are working on tests to find this same Numt in the genome of other primates with the hope of narrowing down when the DNA migration occurred.

Leaky underground storage tanks release pollutants into the environment. In northern New Mexico, water wells near leaking gas station tanks were found to contain bacteria that had evolved the ability to break down gasoline and incorporate the products into their metabolism. Unfortunately, finding which bacteria do this is nearly impossible, due to the large number of different microbes in the soil. However, discovering which proteins break down gasoline may be an easier problem, and Dr. Reiss and her students have developed methods for doing this.

How do you deal with millions of DNA sequences from thousands of organisms? That's one of the endeavors of the emerging field of Bioinformatics, and it requires expertise from both biologists and computer scientists. From the biologists' perspective, there is a need for user-friendly and biologically-relevant programs to analyze DNA sequence and RNA and protein expression data. Computer scientists view Bioinformatics as a database creation and manipulation problem. The educational challenge is to get both groups to communicate in a common language. Dr. Reiss is attempting to involve both biology and computer science students in Bioinformatics projects that will allow them to learn from each other.
Pine tree parts encased in a 24,600 year-old packrat midden.
Atomic Force Microscope image of ancient DNA.
Weekly lab meetings keep everyone informed.
Looking for Numt's in Human, Chimpanzee, and Macaque DNA.
Wrangling tiny worms in the Genetics Lab.
Published by the Biology Department, Jones Annex, NM Tech, 801 Leroy Place, Socorro, NM, 87801 (575) 835-5612
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