Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

molecular biology

Melanoma, Mutations and Abnormal Cell Cycles

This minds-on, analysis and discussion activity introduces students to basic cancer biology, somatic mutations, and regulation of the cell cycle. After students view an introductory video about a teen with melanoma, they complete five sections: “What is melanoma?”, “How does a melanoma develop?”, “Why do melanoma cells divide too much?”, “Genes, Environment and Melanoma”, and a final section in which students summarize their major conclusions about melanoma and learn which of these conclusions generalize to other types of cancer.

Gene Editing with CRISPR-Cas – A Cure for Severe Sickle Cell Anemia?

This analysis and discussion activity introduces Victoria Gray whose severe sickle cell anemia was effectively treated by experimental gene editing with CRISPR-Cas. To begin, students review the molecular biology of sickle cell anemia.

Next, they learn how bacteria use CRISPR-Cas to defend against viral infections.

Then, students analyze some of the research findings that scientists used to identify the target for gene editing, and they analyze the CRISPR-Cas gene editing treatment for sickle cell anemia.

The Teacher Notes present an optional additional video and question to stimulate students to consider the ethical controversies related to potential uses of CRISPR-Cas.

Cell Differentiation and Epigenetics

Red blood cells and skin cellsIn this analysis and discussion activity, students answer minds-on questions as they learn about the differentiation of specialized cell types, including the role of changes in epigenetic control of gene expression during cell differentiation.

Students also learn about environmental influences on epigenetic control of gene expression and the need for cell division and differentiation even in a fully grown adult.

The Student Handout is available in the first two attached files and as a Google doc, designed for use in online instruction and distance learning. (For additional instructions, see, especially item 7.) The Teacher Notes, available in the last two attached files, provide instructional suggestions and background information and explain how this activity is aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards.

UV, Mutations, and DNA Repair

Before and after UV on double helixStudents learn about the effects of UV light, mutations and DNA repair on the survival of prokaryotes and the risk of skin cancer. In the first experiment, students evaluate the effects of different durations of UV exposure on survival and population growth of Haloferax volcanii. This experiment also tests for photorepair of DNA damage. Students design the second experiment, which evaluates the effectiveness of sunscreen. In addition, students answer analysis and discussion questions that promote their understanding of molecular biology, cancer, and the interpretation of experimental results. 

How Genes Can Cause Disease – Understanding Transcription and Translation

Transcription with RNA nucleotides

In the first section of this analysis and discussion activity, students learn that different versions of a gene give the instructions for making different versions of a clotting protein, which result in normal blood clotting or hemophilia.

Next, students learn how genes provide the instructions for making a protein via the processes of transcription and translation. They develop an understanding of the roles of RNA polymerase, the base-pairing rules, mRNA, tRNA and ribosomes.

Finally, students use their learning about transcription and translation to understand how a change in a single nucleotide in the hemoglobin gene can result in sickle cell anemia.

Throughout this activity, students use the information in brief explanations, figures and videos to answer analysis and discussion questions.

This activity can be used to introduce students to transcription and translation or to reinforce and enhance student understanding. 

If you prefer a hands-on activity that uses simple paper models to simulate the molecular processes of transcription and translation, see “How Genes Can Cause Disease – Introduction to Transcription and Translation” (

Genetic Engineering Challenge – How can scientists develop a type of rice that could prevent vitamin A deficiency?

Parts of rice diagram

This analysis and discussion activity begins with an introduction to vitamin A deficiency and a review of transcription, translation, and the universal genetic code.

Several questions challenge students to design a basic plan that could produce a genetically engineered rice plant that makes rice grains that contain pro-vitamin A. Subsequent information and questions guide students as they learn how scientists use bacteria to insert desired genes, together with an appropriate promoter, in the DNA of plant cells.

In a final optional section, students evaluate the pro and con arguments in the controversy concerning Golden Rice.

Using Molecular and Evolutionary Biology to Understand HIV/AIDS and Treatment

Structure of HIVThis analysis and discussion activity introduces students to the biology of HIV infection and treatment, including the molecular biology of the HIV virus lifecycle and the importance of understanding molecular biology and natural selection for developing effective treatments.

The questions in this activity challenge students to apply their understanding of basic molecular and cellular biology and natural selection and interpret information presented in prose and diagrams in order to understand multiple aspects of the biology of HIV/AIDS and treatment.

Molecular Biology: Major Concepts and Learning Activities

This overview reviews key concepts and learning activities to help students understand how genes influence our traits by molecular processes.  Topics covered include basic understanding of the important roles of proteins and DNA; DNA structure, function and replication; the molecular biology of how genes influence traits, including transcription and translation; the molecular biology of mutations; and genetic engineering. 

To help students understand the relevance of these molecular processes, the suggested learning activities link alleles of specific genes to human characteristics such as albinism, hemophilia, sickle cell anemia and muscular dystrophy. Suggested activities include analysis and discussion activities, hands-on laboratory and simulation activities, web-based simulations, and a vocabulary review game.

This activity is aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards. The attached files have the overview of key concepts, with descriptions of relevant learning activities and links to the activities. 

Mutations and Muscular Dystrophy

Parents of unaffected parents and their offspring

This analysis and discussion activity begins with a brief video presenting the anchor phenomenon – a teenager who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Then, students learn about the normal role of the muscle protein, dystrophin, and how the lack of functional dystrophin results in the death of muscle fibers.

Students analyze how different types of deletion mutations cause the more severe Duchenne muscular dystrophy vs. the milder Becker muscular dystrophy. During this analysis, students review basic molecular biology, learn how to use a codon wheel, and analyze the molecular effects of different types of point mutations and deletion mutations.

Finally, students analyze the sex-linked recessive inheritance of muscular dystrophy.

DNA Function, Structure and Replication

DNA structure

In this analysis and discussion activity, students learn the basics of DNA function, structure, and replication.

The sequence of nucleotides in a gene determines the sequence of amino acids in a protein, which determines the structure and function of the protein. Different versions of a gene give the instructions to make different versions of a protein, which can result in different characteristics.

Since many different proteins are needed for a cell to be alive, each cell needs a complete copy of the DNA with all of the genes. Therefore, before a cell divides, it needs to make a copy of all its DNA. Students analyze DNA replication to understand how the double helix structure of DNA, the base-pairing rules, and DNA polymerase work together to produce two identical copies of the original DNA molecule.

This activity can be used to introduce your students to key concepts about DNA or to review these concepts.

Syndicate content