O'Really?

March 16, 2010

DNA, Diversity and You at Cambridge Science Festival

Sequence BraceletsAs part of Cambridge Science festival last weekend, I joined a group of about 40 volunteers from The Sanger and EBI at an event “DNA, diversity and you”. This was a series of education and outreach events designed to explore how differences in your genetic code make you different from other individuals, and what makes the humans different from other living things –  with a bit of computational biology thrown in for good measure.  Here are some notes on a selection of the activities, in case you ever find yourself trying to explain biology, computer science or bioinformatics to anyone aged 4-18 and beyond. These resources are all tried, tested and fun to work with, for students and teachers alike:

  1. DNA origami create your own origami DNA molecule, and hands on way of learning abou tthe double helix structure of DNA
  2. DNA sequence bracelets (see picture right). Thread coloured beads according to sequence sections from a range of organisms including trout, chimpanzee, butterfly, a flesh-eating microbe and rotting corpse flower.
  3. Yummy gummy DNA (under 5’s) build your own DNA helix out of sweets and cocktail sticks. Then scoff it all afterwards.
  4. What’s my name in DNA? find out what your name is in DNA, and what the corresponding (hypothetical) protein is using software from deCODE.
  5. Function Finders translate DNA into a sequence of amino acids using wooden translator blocks, then find out which organism the amino acid sequence is from.
  6. Genome sizes (with seatbelts) Rank organisms (inc. human, zebrafish, mosquito, sugar cane and yeast) and find out if they are in the right order. Results are often not what you would expect.
  7. Play your genes right. A card-based guessing game which compares the number of genes in the human genome with the number of genes from a range of different organisms include the flu virus, E. coli bacteria, armadillo, rice plant and others.
  8. Genome Jigsaws for illustrating the process of finishing supposedly “finished” genomes, by putting together a square sequence jigsaw following base pairing rules to end up with a complete finished square.
  9. DNA Time Team examines of aspects ancestry and evolution. The activity encourages people to work out the sequence of a common ancestor by filling in the gaps on a simple evolutionary tree.
  10. Spot the difference with proteins. Comparing Heat Shock Protein (HSP) in human and other organisms to illustrate how different regions of the protein vary between different organisms and how this affects function.
  11. Ready, steady sort: a sorting network that demonstrates one technique that computers use to sort through large amounts of information like sequence data. This comes straight from Computer Science Unplugged by Tim Bell, Mike Fellows and Ian Witten. This activity can be done either as a smaller board game, or as a larger floor game. Either way, it’s a lot of fun, especially if you time people for an added competitive element (see video below)

There were a whole bunch of new activities at the festival this year, maybe these will appear on the your genome website in the future. Anyway, it was great fun to get involved, there is nothing quite like the challenge of explaining parallel computing to young kids, teenagers and their parents – actually much easier than you’d think if you’ve got access to great teaching materials.

Thanks to Francesca Gale and Louisa Wright for all the hard work that went into organising this fun and successful event.

2 Comments »

  1. Those activities are fabulous. Can’t wait for the others to be available on Your Genome.

    Comment by woodforthetrees — March 17, 2010 @ 12:47 pm | Reply

  2. […] of the activities were inspired by Duncan Hull’s O’Really? blog, describing the European Bioinformatics Institute’s activities at the recent Cambridge […]

    Pingback by DNA night with the Guides « Wood for the trees — March 20, 2010 @ 10:24 am | Reply


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