5 Ways to Make DNA Structure and Function a More Relatable Topic

Sana Shujat

DNA is the acronym for deoxyribonucleic acid, which makes up life on earth. DNA is found in all living things. It's a component that connects all beings. You'll be surprised to learn that you share 99.9% of your DNA with other humans. 

It is an exciting topic to teach as there are many fun facts about DNA that you can share with students. These facts are guaranteed to spark interest and make learning about DNA a fun experience. 

However, the structure and function of DNA get complicated for students as they are new to the idea. But do not worry; we will discuss five fun ways to make this topic more interesting.

Picture from Labster's DNA Structure and Function simulation.

Why DNA structure and function could be tricky

DNA is a fascinating genetic molecule that still has many mysteries about life. Students could easily get overwhelmed by learning about the complex DNA structure and its dynamic functions. 

The following are the reasons that make DNA a tricky topic for students. 

1. It's abstract

We discuss DNA in crime series and genetic diseases and use it to blame or complement our traits and features. However, we cannot see DNA, and learning about such molecules could sometimes feel abstract. Students find it hard to believe that DNA is as long as mentioned in the books since it's so masterly packed in our microscopic cells. 

2. It's complicated

The nitrogenous bases that makeup DNA are linked together in an orderly fashion along with the sugar and phosphate backbone. The nitrogenous bases are purines (adenine and guanine) and pyrimidines (thyme and cytosine). The wrong pairing of these bases could result in genetic diseases. Many more factors make the DNA regulate its functioning, making it a complicated and overwhelming topic for students.

3. It's content-heavy

DNA is packed inside the chromosome, which is folded inside the cell's nucleus. There are different types of DNA present in eukaryotes and prokaryotes. There is much more to learn about its structure, like base pairing, DNA replication, translation, etc. 

5 ways to make DNA structure and function a more relatable topic. 

1. Show the people behind the science 

There is a common understanding that Watson and Crick discovered DNA; however, it is not entirely true. We owe the discovery of DNA to many scientists who played a crucial role in putting the puzzle pieces together. Tell students the discovery of DNA as a story introducing all the significant characters and the challenges they faced. 

Friedrich Miescher, in 1869 accidentally discovered DNA while working on leukocytes. He named this molecule "nuclein," now known as deoxyribonucleic acid. 1881 — Nobel Prize winner and German biochemist Albrecht Kossel discovered the nitrogenous bases and changed the name from "nuclein" to "DNA."

 Theodor Boveri and Walter Sutton, in the early 1900s, discovered that chromosomes are packed with genetic material, i.e., DNA, involved in inheritance. Erwin Chargaff devoted much time (1944-1950) to understanding DNA and unraveling Chargaff's Rules. He also introduced different types of DNA found in other organisms. 

Rosalind Franklin, 1951 surprised us with the first visual representation of DNA as X-ray diffraction photographs of DNA. Watson and Crick, 1953 saw the opportunity that led to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA that we know today. 

2. Relate it to the real world

DNA is present inside our bodies which makes it quite relatable. You can share many examples in your class to show DNA's role in the real world. Science is striving every day to learn more about this beautiful molecular structure. In 2003 we mapped the entire human genome, which helped us gain insightful information about our DNA.

AncestoryDNAtest is a fun little test that could tell you about your true origin and ancestors. For instance, you are Asian, but the result might show that you are Irish. Interesting, right? Now is the time to discuss how mutation plays a role in DNA engineering over time. It will make students pay attention to the topic. 

DNA is complex but fragile; therefore, it might break due to internal or external stimuli. It leads to genetic health problems like hemophilia, Alzheimer's, and cancer. The solution to all these problems is also in DNA, which science is still trying to find. Such information will make students want to learn more and research the topic themselves. 

DNA fingerprinting in forensic lab help solve many cases. Scientists like to play around with this molecule to clone or artificially synthesize products of interest. There is a chance that in the future, parents may be able to modify their unborn child to get their desired features genetically. 

3. Seeing is believing 

Students can't visualize the DNA structure without help from visual representations like the gif shown below. 

The unscrambling of coiled strands leads to more depth and makes it even harder to draw the mental picture. DNA does its magic at the molecular level; therefore, showing some visual representation helps students to put words in an accurate picture. 

DNA simulation

Image from Labster's DNA Structure and Function simulation.

4. Make it stick with word-play

Telling stories, showing visualizations, and relating the topic with real-world examples is a great way to make students understand the topic. But it is helpful for students to get some word-play to memorize the confusing exam terms. Here are some of the words used to discuss DNA structure and function, which are easy to learn.

  • The structure of DNA is described in its abbreviation; for instance, the word "deoxy" depicts that it contains less oxygen molecules in its structure when compared with RNA. "ribo" is taken from "ribose, " a 5-carbon sugar. The last part of deoxyribonucleic acid is "nucleic acid, " which shows that DNA is composed of nucleic acids. Breaking the word makes us understand that DNA comprises sugar and nucleic acids (along with a phosphate backbone).
  • The four types of nucleotides, i.e., adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine, are selective in their pairing. Use words like "apple tree" and "green crop" to help students memorize that adenine always bonds with thymine, while guanine likes to click with cytosine. 
  • The double helix of DNA is composed of two strands that run antiparallel to each other, making it easy for DNA to wind and unwind. Relate the DNA structure with a twisted ladder or braided hair to make the topic relatable. 

5. Use virtual lab simulations

A virtual laboratory simulation is a great way to teach DNA structure and function. At Labster, we're dedicated to delivering fully interactive advanced laboratory simulations that utilize gamification elements like storytelling and scoring systems inside an immersive and engaging 3D universe.

Learn about DNA with gamification

Check out DNA structure and function Virtual Lab simulation at Labster. In this simulation, you'd be playing the role of an intern whose duty would be to answer some questions about DNA structure and function for a science magazine. You'll be asked to put correct base pairs completing the DNA double-strand with a ticking clock. Such activities help students learn the topic in an interactive and fun way. 

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