Michael Hass wears a white lab coat as he leans over the liquid nitrogen to grind a brittle a leaf from a mango tree with mortar and pestle into fine white powder. He is attempting to break the leaf cells open in order to extract DNA, part of a larger scale project collecting DNA from various rare and endangered plant species at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.
Under the leadership and supervision of Fairchild’s Director Carl Lewis, Ph. D., Hass is working to catalog Fairchild Farm’s 600 species of mango into a DNA bank at Fairchild’s Baddour DNA laboratory.
Traditionally, the fleshly yellowish-red tropical fruit is seasonally available only from March to September, but for Hass and the interns in the lab, the mango DNA project is an all year enterprise.
“It’s never been done before, never in the history of mangoes,” said Lewis. “We know which mangoes taste good and when they fruit, but we don’t have a way forward to start breeding and making new varieties until we understand genetically what we’re working with.”
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Under Lewis, Hass has become a fixture in this particular lab on Thursdays and Fridays since the it opened in 2012, not only as a volunteer researcher, but as a quasi-lab manager and educator for the students that come through.
Like many of Fairchild’s Science Village volunteers, Hass arrived with an impressive research-oriented resume. His 33 year career in Miami includes a 11 years conducting medical research at University of Miami’s medical school and 22 years working at Miami-Dade Police Department’s crime lab where he eventually became manager for DNA testing in the forensic biology section.
After his retirement a few years ago, Hass’ wife suggested volunteering at Fairchild to improve his vegetable gardening and landscaping skills. He was immediately interested.
“It’s a more beautiful side of life,” said Hass. “What we’re really doing is studying the beauty of nature, trying to understand it and preserve it.”
It was something of a coincidence that the Science Village was scheduled to open up around the same time his application was approved, making his placement into the Science Village a very easy transition.
“By the time my application was process, we were open,” Hass recalled. “I’ve had the good fortune to be one of the first volunteers working in the science village, in this particular laboratory.”
The DNA lab is set up for two major functions: to extract DNA from plant materials and polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, the process used to turn a single copy of DNA into millions of copies.
“The purpose is to develop procedures so that we can actually distinguish by a DNA test one species of mango from another, or one variety from another,” said Hass.
According to him, the end goal is to create a DNA bank in which there will be a DNA representative of each variety of those trees for other scientists to use.
“Should there ever be a question about a comparison between any two mango species or something like to try to identify an unknown sample, then we could use all of microscopic and visual clues to narrow down what the possibilities are as what the identity of what this particular mango variety might be and then use a DNA test for verify that.”
Lewis said that this project is part of the lifetime amount of work for the people at Fairchild, which began with David Fairchild who a hundred years ago was collecting some of the mangoes.
Lewis called it a “long, big initiative” to start to put together the family tree of the mango and get ready for the next generation of mangoes.
For him, Hass’ eagerness, organization, and attention to detail has helped lift this experimental project off the ground so easily.
“He is very comfortable now working with these things that have never been studied before,” said Lewis.
He added that it is not just his creative mind that helps the lab, but it is his past experience in the crime lab that really adds to the experience that the interns and students receive there as well.
Fourth year Florida International University Ph. D. student Emily Warschefsky called Hass the “lab manger” who has helped her with troubleshooting while she works on her thesis.
“He’s been really helpful at trying to figure out which techniques we need to modify for the DNA extractions,” said Warschefsky, 28, who is studying the evolutionary relationships and population genetics of mangoes. “Mike has been working on helping to optimize these different protocols like the DNA extraction and he’s helping to catalog the diversity of the mangoes that we have in our collection here.”
She called him the type of person you could always turn to and say ‘hey what do you think about this?’ Another student agreed with her on how beneficial he is to have around.
Since his start two years ago, Hass has compiled about a quarter of the 600 mango species into the bank, but considers himself to be “definitely in the beginning and at a stage of trying new things.”
Once all the mango flowers are used, like they have been already this year, he works on more individualized tests for the plants.
“Our goal will be to combine as many of these tests as we can to make a really efficient, effective way of analyzing mango samples in particular, but also to learn the procedures that we can adapt and use for other plants,” said Hass.
The DNA lab functions as both a working and teaching space, not only is he teaching the students but he is learning from them as well.
“Whenever it seems like a dull, dreary thing I’m doing, I just look out the window and it’s an amazing place to be.”