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7 Molecular Biology Techniques to Use in the Classroom

Biology
Teaching with Labster

Preparing students to learn about molecular biology techniques doesn’t have to be challenging. 

Have you tried a flipped lab approach to teaching? Students watch a video, do a simulation, or prepare for the practical lab with homework. Upon getting to class, they’re more knowledgeable about the topic and can dive right in. 

We’ve identified 7 common techniques and recommended a virtual lab for each option to prepare students in a flipped lab style. 

1. Cell culture

Cell culture is the removal of cells from an animal or plant in an artificial environment, generally for the purposes of research. “Cell culture is one of the major tools used in cellular and molecular biology, providing excellent model systems for studying the normal physiology and biochemistry of cells (e.g., metabolic studies, aging), the effects of drugs and toxic compounds on the cells, and mutagenesis and carcinogenesis” (1). 

In the Cell Culture Basics simulation, students will learn how to culture cells in a controlled environment. They’ll perform the different steps to keep them healthy by using a standard cell culture protocol for eukaryotic cells. They’ll also be introduced to the aseptic technique.

2. Centrifugation

Centrifugation is a process that uses centrifugal force to separate particles from a solution. It’s one of the most useful and frequently employed techniques in the molecular biology laboratory. Most labs will have a centrifuge! This technique “is used to collect cells, to precipitate DNA, to purify virus particles, and to distinguish subtle differences in the conformation of molecules” (2). 

Centrifugation is used in Labster’s Pigment Extraction simulation: Use photosynthesis to produce biofuel and reduce pollution. Once students have done a series of centrifugations and used liquid nitrogen to snap freeze the pigments, it’s time to find out if the pigment extracts can absorb green light. 

Pigment extraction GIF

3. Western blot

Western blotting is an important technique used in cell and molecular biology. The technique is often used in research to separate and identify proteins. It involves transferring proteins after electrophoresis separates them from the gel to a membrane (3). Even with the perfect stack, there is still the potential to cause a minor fire or another disaster. Thankfully, the process is much quicker in the virtual lab as you do not need to wait for the transfer to complete.

In this Western Blot Transfer simulation, students will learn how to set up and troubleshoot the transfer step of Western blot. The lab assistant, Dr. One, has already separated the proteins by size using gel electrophoresis. Before they can continue to use antibodies to detect the levels of p53 protein, the protein samples must be transferred from the gel to a membrane.

4. Gel electrophoresis

Gel electrophoresis is one of the most important tools in molecular biology, allowing you to distinguish DNA fragments of different lengths. “Not only is this analytical and preparative method integral to common workflows like molecular cloning and PCR, but it also plays an important role for nucleic acid separation and analysis in emerging technologies like genome editing and next-generation” (4). 

In our Gel Electrophoresis simulation, solve a crime by using DNA fingerprinting to identify a thief. Use nucleic acid gel electrophoresis to separate and visualize DNA molecules and watch an animation to understand what happens inside the gel tank.

nag

5. SDS-PAGE

SDS PAGE or Sodium Dodecyl Sulphate-Polyacrylamide Gel Electrophoresis is a technique used for the separation of proteins based on their molecular weight, detection of specific proteins, and identification of strain species (5).

The SDS-PAGE simulation creates conditions for separating proteins by an identifying characteristic, molecular weight. In this simulation, students will learn how SDS, the acrylamide gel, buffer solutions, and the electric current work together to separate proteins.

6. Molecular Cloning Virtual Lab

Molecular cloning is the isolation of DNA from any species. It’s an essential technique to create DNA-based experimental tools for expression in bacterial or mammalian cells. “It is a useful tool to study a gene, modify the gene, reintroduce the modified gene into the natural host or another host, or to produce protein” (7).

In the Molecular Cloning simulation, students will dive into recombinant DNA technology with cell division, transcription, and translation. It includes concepts related to restriction enzymes, cloning, and reporter genes.

Molecular cloning GIF

7. Polymerase Chain Reaction

PCR involves using short synthetic DNA fragments called primers to select a segment of the genome to be amplified, and then multiple rounds of DNA synthesis to amplify that segment. “PCR is a technique to make many copies of a specific DNA region in vitro (in a test tube rather than an organism)” (6).

In the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) simulation, you will be thrown right into a crime scene where an unsolved murder has taken place. After investigating the crime scene, your first task is to collect blood samples in the hope that the murderer has left traces of their DNA.

Questions for consideration:

  • What are your favorite molecular biology simulations from Labster?

  • What do you consider the most important molecular biology technique for the classroom?

If you want to try these labs or any of our other 300+ simulations, get our free 30-day all-access educator’s pass

Sources:

(1) Thermo Fisher Scientific. (n.d.) What is Cell Culture? Retrieved from https://www.thermofisher.com/us/en/home/references/gibco-cell-culture-basics/introduction-to-cell-culture.html#:~:text=Cell%20culture%20is%20one%20of,cells%2C%20and%20mutagenesis%20and%20carcinogenesis.

(2) Stephenson, F.  (2016). Calculations for Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (Third Edition). Academic Press.  

(3) Mahmood, T., & Yang, P. C. (2012). Western blot: technique, theory, and trouble shooting. North American journal of medical sciences, 4(9), 429. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3456489/

(4) Thermo Fisher Scientific. (n.d.). Nucleic Acid Gel Electrophoresis—A Brief Overview and History. Retrieved from https://www.thermofisher.com/us/en/home/life-science/cloning/cloning-learning-center/invitrogen-school-of-molecular-biology/na-electrophoresis-education/na-separation-overview.html

(5) Creative Proteomics (n.d.). How Does SDS-PAGE Work? Retrieved from https://www.creative-proteomics.com/resource/how-does-sds-page-work.htm#:~:text=SDS%20polyacrylamide%20gel%20electrophoresis%20(SDS,and%20identification%20of%20strain%20species.

(6) Khan Academy (n.d.). Polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Retrieved from https://www.khanacademy.org/science/ap-biology/gene-expression-and-regulation/biotechnology/a/polymerase-chain-reaction-pcr 

(7) Kroemer, Tyasning. (n.d.) Gold Biotechnology. A Quick Overview of Molecular Cloning. Retrieved from https://www.goldbio.com/articles/article/cloning-overview