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5 Ways to Make Gene Expression, Linkage and Regulation Approachable to Students

Akanksha Saxena
Teaching with Labster
October 18, 2022

Introduction: Gene Expression, Linkage and Regulation

Gene is a widely popular term among the masses in the 21st century. Whether a person belongs to academic Biology background or not, they know that “what we are is the manifestation of our genes”. And it is these genes that we inherit from our parents which they inherited from their parents. Hence the nose of our grandmother sits here on our face; whether we accept it or not! This is a very layman's understanding of genes and how genetic material is passed down the family lines. But it makes sense, right?

Scientifically, genes are the most basic structural and functional units of inheritance. Our DNA is condensed in the form of chromatin that is contained inside the nucleus of the cell. Genes are defined portions of DNA in chromatin. While some of the genes code for functional proteins, some others don’t code for any. 

Studies related to gene expression, gene linkage and gene regulation have found widespread interest among the scientific community. While all the cells of our body possess the entire genome, their expression isn’t similar in all cells. Gene expression is tightly regulated by multiple factors. This gathers the interest of scientists as it can help in understanding how nature has precisely engineered biological life. 

Delivering a talk on these aspects of genes that involves an endless list of intricacies and pointers is no less than a herculean task for educators. A student is often perplexed and in the dilemma of connecting dots as the topic is rich in terminologies, and novel concepts and requires a lot of work.

We, at Labster, understand the complexities of this subject for both students and teachers alike. This article can provide some help as it attempts to identify the major issues encountered by students. It also lists practical solutions that teachers and educators can incorporate into their next class. By the end, we’ll convince you why a virtual lab simulation will be helpful not only for your students but also for you as an educator to deliver concepts more efficiently.

Why can Gene Expression, Linkage and Regulation be tricky to teach or learn?

There are 3 reasons why students dread and get confused about the topics of Gene Expression, Linkage and Regulation. Acknowledging these issues is the first step toward making the topic more approachable. 

1. Everything is happening at the molecular level

Since genes are a part of DNA that have a specific role in the functioning of the body (direct role, “coding genes”; indirect role, “non-coding genes”), and DNA is not visible to unaided eyes, the processes of gene expression, linkage and expression cannot be observed directly.  This portrays a major visualization challenge to students. The different ideas of gene regulation (prokaryotic versus eukaryotic), its various steps, and gene expression become difficult to convey for educators. It becomes quite a task for educators to explain the science behind different types of chromatin modification (histone acetylation, DNA methylation, etc) to students who are usually just aware of the basic central dogma of life.

2. The topics are extremely heavy on content

Dealing with these topics about gene expression and regulation can be quite numbing for students as it hits them with recurrent waves of content. It’s so heavy on novel ideas and concepts. Concepts like DNA packaging, histones and their types, nucleosomes, different types of RNA (mRNA, miRNA, rRNA, siRNA, etc) and their respective specific roles, different types of eukaryotic gene regulation (before transcription via chromatin modifications, during transcription through RNA processing, after transcription by mRNA degradation and during and after translation), etc can be a lot to digest and comprehend.

3. Too textual and seems impractical

These topics demand a lot of work and effort to be understood. Without a proper understanding of these subjects, they can seem quite irrelevant to study. It's not odd that many students find the idea of gene regulation and expression quite theoretical. Since educators mostly focus on the definitions, mechanisms and principles of the different ideas, the whole point of studying this subject is often missed out in many classes. And this is where the notion of “being too impractical” roots from. 

5 ways to make Gene Expression, Linkage, and Regulation more approachable topics to understand

To address the issues encountered while teaching this topic, educators can engage the under-listed solutions in their classes. These can decode many different aspects of Gene Expression, Linkage and Regulation. Not only can they make teaching easier for educators like you but they will also make lessons clearer and easier to assimilate for your students.

1. Emphasize the practical utility of the subjects 

Since the topic is already very heavy on content, teachers should make their students see the practical utility and applications of these subjects in real life. This can serve as the major motivator to passionately associate themselves with the learning journey. We list a few examples that you can quote in your next class.

  • Use of “Gene expression studies” to identify genes linked with common diseases and issues like obesity, diabetes, familial hypercholesterolemia, and familial forms of breast cancer.

  • Use of “Gene linkage studies” for the assessment of diseases within families, finding the chromosomal location of disease genes, and prediction of diseases in progenies using pedigree/ linkage analysis (You can use the Inheritance with Pedigree simulationfromLabster to teach more about pedigrees).

  • Use of “Gene regulation studies” for studying which genes are coregulated, identifying groups of genes that are coregulated during differentiation and cancer, and conducting correlation studies between drug dosage and pharmacodynamic marker/s (to study cellular responses).  

gene regulation simulation

Figure: Snippet from Gene Linkage and Pedigree Analyses simulation by Labster where your students can apply the “concepts of gene linkage” and serve as genetic counselors to predict the chances of the daughter of a breast cancer patient getting the disease herself. It is available for University/College classes.

2. Simplify the basics and build stories around concepts

Since these concepts about gene expression, linkage and regulation are quite novel to students, we recommend educators to approach these topics slowly. Try to build stories around each idea and navigate your students through it. This method of storytelling can help them understand why certain genes are tightly regulated while others aren’t. 

You can use these Storytelling blogs from Labster as a tool (Blog-1, Blog-2).

Figure: Snippet from Gene Regulation simulation by Labster where your students can learn more about histone modifications. It is available for University/College classes.

3. Engage students in more hands-on experiments

Reiterating all the subtopics when your students are engaged in small planned hands-on experiments is a good idea. We list one of the small experiments that can be planned for high school and university/college students.

Example: RT-qPCR Analysis

To identify a particular gene for a trait (like Obesity), we need to start with all the coding genes in the genome. For this, an RT-qPCR experiment can be set up. This will engage your students in the RNA extraction activity. You can also use the RNA Extraction simulation from Labster to demonstrate the technique. Now, as your student's experiment, you can explain the ideas of “reverse transcription”, “Quantification of the transcripts using RT-qPCR technique”, “importance of a reference gene”, “idea of housekeeping genes”, “art of primer design and tools available freely on the internet to do so”, “preparation of PCR master mixes” and much more. You can also use the PCR simulationfrom Labster for this purpose.

Explore Gene Expression Unit- Use sequencing to unveil a gene linked to obesity Virtual Lab Simulation

Figure: Snippets from Gene Expression Unit simulation by Labster where your students can learn about qPCR and the role of cDNA synthesis and reverse transcriptase. It is available for High School and University/College classes.

4. Simplify, don’t complicate!

The idea of genes and their expression, regulation, etc not merely elucidated for academic learning. They are used to make the lives around us better in multiple ways. With more knowledge comes more power to harness life energy. This is why we can never overemphasize the importance of simple biology concepts. Their understanding holds the potential to rescue many human and animal lives from life-threatening diseases. We list a few topics that should be taught with great clarity and objectivity in classes.

Explore Gene linkage and pedigree analyses Virtual Lab Simulation 2

Figure: Snippet from Gene Linkage and Pedigree Analyses simulation by Labster where you can learn about gel electrophoresis. It is available for University/College classes.

5. Use virtual lab simulations

Since Gene Expression, Linkage and Regulation are crucial topics in almost all fields of Biology, ensuring that a teaching session on these subjects is informative yet engaging is a MUST.

Teachers dealing with these subjects often try a range of means and methods to do the same too. To bridge the gaps that are still left, we have brought the concept of simulations that can make learning a joyful ride for your students. It saves you time assorting resources as the simulations are full of activities, virtual lab experiences, games, and quizzes.

We have a set of 3 simulations on Gene Expression, Linkage and Regulation.

  1. Gene Expression Unit simulation

  2. Gene Linkage and Pedigree Analyses simulation 

  3. Gene Regulation simulation

We encourage modern-day educators to make the most of these simulations from Labster. It takes your students into a virtual world where they can actively engage in the experiments and make full use of the gamification elements to imbibe important concepts. By using this way of active and immersive teaching, our virtual learning platform takes an advent in the field of Science to make the upcoming scientists thorough with the “basics of their respective subjects”. 

Gene Expression Unit GIF

Figure: A snippet from Gene Expression Unit simulation by Labster where your students can engage in an NGS experiment. It is available for High School and University/College classes.

You can get in touch to find out how you can start using virtual labs with your students.

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