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How Genes Can Cause Disease - Introduction to Transcription and Translation

Process of transcription and translation

To begin this hands-on, minds-on 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.

Then, 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, students use the information in brief explanations, figures and videos to answer analysis and discussion questions. In addition, students use simple paper models to simulate the processes of transcription and translation.

An alternative version omits the paper models (How Genes Can Cause Disease – Understanding Transcription and Translation).

Download Student Handout: PDF format or Word format

Download Teacher Preparation Notes: PDF format

The Teacher Preparation Notes provide instructional suggestions and background information and explain how this activity is aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards.

Erik Johnson at River Valley High School has prepared an animation of the modeling activity; this animation is available in the attachment below.

We invite comments on this Hands-On Activity and the accompanying Teacher Preparation Notes, including suggestions for other teachers who are planning to use the activity, useful preparatory or follow-up activities, additional resources or any questions you have related to the activity, or a brief description of any problem you might have encountered. If you would prefer to send your comments or questions in a private message, please write Ingrid Waldron at

TranscriptionTranslationANIMATION.gif15.98 MB


iwaldron's picture

2023 revision

In the Student Handout, we have clarified some of the questions, explanations and figures. We have also added an analysis of sickle cell trait to introduce students to the molecular biology of a heterozygous individual.

iwaldron's picture

July 2020 revision

The Student Handout has been streamlined and reorganized to facilitate student learning. The Student Handout now includes a final section with questions about how the coronavirus uses the cell’s ribosomes and molecules to make new viral proteins. The Teacher Preparation Notes include a brief introduction to replication of the coronavirus.

iwaldron's picture

2020 revision

The revised activity starts with much more well-developed anchor phenomena (hemophilia and sickle cell anemia). Subsequent sections are oriented to answer the guiding question “How can genes cause health problems?” In addition, this revision has clarified multiple explanations and questions and reorganized some of the material to facilitate student learning and understanding.

Ann Dixon's picture

Latest experimental gene therapy for sickle cell

View a video about Helen Obando, a 16 year old undergoing experimental gene therapy for sickle cell, and read her inspiring story, from the New York Times.

Cheryl Eden's picture

Gene to protein transcription translatiom

If teachers need help with answer keys, has it occured to you that parents trying to help their children find this absolutely frustrating and difficult to understand! Thanks for not helping parents and only teachers?!

Ann Dixon's picture

Homeschooling help

Hello, and glad you voiced your concern here. We have talked for several years about how to support homeschooling parents - and have not come up with ideas about how to discern whether a parent is asking for an answer key or a student. We welcome your ideas! Teachers write us from their school email addresses, but there is no parallel way we’ve been able to come up with for parents. As Dr. Waldron noted, we volunteer our time in offering these and other materials on Serendip, so we would need a simple process that would not require a staff member’s assistance.

iwaldron's picture

Answer Keys

I’m sorry that you are so frustrated. As a volunteer who spends many unpaid hours creating and improving these activities, I am very cautious about sharing keys and, as a matter of policy, do not share keys except with verified teachers. I know that for many teachers it is important that the keys not be available to their students. Homeschooling parents are welcome to use these activities if they want, but if you want the key for an activity, I encourage you to use one of the many activities for which the answer keys are available online.


wildcat's picture

Thank you

Thank you so much for not providing answer keys online, but teacher notes that provide enough information to create one. I have had numerous students immediately search for that I want them to complete to see if an answer key has been uploaded. My colleagues and I are grateful for the hours you have spent creating and refining these wonderful activities.

iwaldron's picture

Thank you

Thank you for expressing your appreciation!


iwaldron's picture

2019 revision

To improve student understanding of basic concepts, we have revised some of the explanations and questions in the Student Handout, added several figures, and improved other figures. Based on helpful input from Philadelphia area teachers, the procedure has been reformatted and clarified to help ensure that students accurately model the actual processes of transcription and translation.


Ann Dixon's picture

Experimental gene therapy for sickle cell

There is an interesting experimental gene therapy being tested for sickle-cell disease:

iwaldron's picture

Thank you!

This is an interesting and hopeful development.

Serendip Visitor's picture

Would love to see this...

I wish the ribosome had the E site so that it matched the diagrams in the student handout and most textbooks.

Also, one or my students asked me why there is not start codon - is this because it is removed in post-translation modifications and therefore is not shown as it is not part of the final structure?

Thanks for making this - it is awesome!

iwaldron's picture


Thank you for your suggestion and comment. I understand why it would be desirable to include the E site. However, we cannot accommodate a third site in the ribosome unless the ribosome is bigger than a standard piece of paper or we make all the simulation pieces smaller, and we have felt that these trade-offs were not favorable. We have not included the start codon because the methionine is removed from the hemoglobin polypeptide and we did not want to get into this complexity. We realize that both of these decisions are judgment calls. We have favored simplicity in this introductory activity, but we invite you to make changes as appropriate for your students.

iwaldron's picture

July 2017 revision

This revision includes improved explanations, questions and figures. These changes are designed to improve student understanding and retention of important concepts. I am grateful for helpful comments and suggestions feedback from Dusty Carroll, Carrie Chait and other teachers.

Ingrid Waldron

iwaldron's picture

2017 revision

The Student Handout includes more emphasis on having students actively construct their understanding of key points, with less explicit explanation. The Teacher Preparation Notes have improved the instructional suggestions and include a one-page quiz that can be used for summative assessment and/or to reinforce student learning.

Serendip Visitor's picture

broken link easy fix

link needs to change

current .doc link is /sci_edu/waldron/pdf/TranscriptionTranslationProtocol.doc

should be /sci_edu/waldron/pdf/TranscriptionTranslationProtocol.docx

Ann Dixon's picture


Thanks for alerting us to the broken link!

Best wishes,

iwaldron's picture

2016 revision

This revision has clarified some of the questions and explanations and streamlined some parts of the instructions.

iwaldron's picture

2015 revision

The Student Handout has been revised to be more user-friendly, with an even greater focus on helping students to understand the most important concepts. The Teacher Preparation Notes have been revised to be more user-friendly and to provide additional instructional suggestions and background biology.

iwaldron's picture

2014 revision of activity

The 2014 revision of the Student Handout has clarified the explanations of the biological processes and the modeling procedures. In addition we have improved some of the questions and figures in the Student Handout. Also, we have incorporated a final question that engages students in understanding the advantages and disadvantages of different types of models. The Teacher Preparation Notes have been reorganized and clarified and additional background information has been included.

Lori Fretta's picture

2014 revision

I love this activity!,but I cannot load the 2014 revision.

From Gene to Protein—Transcription and Translation

Can I access it some other place?

Please advise

thank you,
Lori Fretta
OVUHS Brandon, VT

iwaldron's picture

Link fixed

Thank you very much for alerting us to this problem which we have now fixed. Please try the link again – it should be working for you now, but please let us know if you run into any additional problems.

jkepper's picture

Lego Movie Maker

We had the students complete this activity and do a stop animation movie at the same time of the process. Their movies were really good, and it was easy to spot misconceptions and items they understood. There is a free app for iphones that it is really easy to use. The app is Lego Movie maker. There are other apps for android phones that create these movies also.

iwaldron's picture

Thanks for the good idea!

Am I right in assuming that each group of students first made a stop animation movie of their simulation of transcription which you reviewed with them and then later made a movie of their simulation of translation? Did you review these movies with each group of students separately? Did the different teams of students compare movies?

Thanks for the excellent suggestion,


iwaldron's picture

March 2011 revision

The main change in this revision is the incorporation of a slot in the nucleus to insert the DNA molecule and a slot in the ribosome to insert the mRNA molecule. Once the DNA or mRNA molecule is inserted, most of the nucleotides are not visible, so students are not tempted to line up all the matching nucleotides or tRNA anti-codons at once. Instead, students add only one nucleotide at a time during transcription and only one amino acid at a time during translation to model the actual biological processes of transcription and translation.

Serendip Visitor's picture

DNA transcription translation

I was just wondering if you had a document template of the packet and accesories the students need for the activity? I can't seem to find it anywhere on your webpage.

iwaldron's picture

template for pages and pieces needed for activity

The template is provided as the last half of the Teacher Preparation Notes, available at the link shown above.

I hope your students enjoy and learn from the activity,

Ingrid Waldron



Serendip Visitor's picture

Very Useful

I'm doing a banana DNA extraction, DNA modeling and origami, and then using this lesson. I am using it for the second time this year with a new roster. The modeling is extremely helpful with the English Learners and English proficient students as well. Thanks so much for the development and posting the material.

Quentin Cartier's picture


Your nucleus where you are supposed to add on nucleotides of RNA says "amino acids"

Extra credit for the kid/kids that find the typo? Works for me... but thought you'd want to be told.

iwaldron's picture

Corrected Version of Teacher Preparation Notes Now Posted

The revised Teacher Preparation Notes with the correct wording in the nucleus is now available directly from this website.


Shanique's picture

Teacher Prep and templates

Neither of the PDF files are opening for me so I cannot see the Teacher Prep Notes. Can someone send these to me?

iwaldron's picture

files have been sent

 I hope you were able to open them.


iwaldron's picture

A corrected version of the

A corrected version of the nucleus is currently available by e-mailing

iwaldron's picture

We will fix ASAP

Thank you!  We are very embarrassed to have overlooked this error and will fix it and post a corrected version as soon as possible.  Meanwhile, extra credit for the kids who find the typo sounds good.


iwaldron's picture

2010 revisions


Extensive revisions have streamlined the activity and clarified the explanations and instructions.


Ingrid Waldron's picture

coding or sense strand vs. template or antisense strand of DNA

Since we are providing the DNA strand for the students to act as RNA polymerase and carry out transcription, we provide the template or anti-sense strand (not the coding or sense strand). With that in mind, you will see that the anti-codons of tRNA fit the mRNA sequence that the students will generate.

Anonymous's picture

Great idea Ingrid but is

Great idea Ingrid but is your Hb DNA sequence the sense or anti-sense strand because mRNA is made from the antisense and therefore has the same sequence as the sense strand (the strand normally shown when giving the sequence of only one strand). Your anti-codons of tRNA don’t seem to fit the mRNA sequence.

Ingrid Waldron's picture

Revised Student Handout

After presenting this activity in a professional development session for Philadelphia high school biology teachers in February, 2009, we have prepared this revised version of the Student Handout with multiple revisions to clarify the biology and the instructions and questions for the students. The newly revised Teacher Preparation Notes for this activity include some additional suggestions for discussion and modifications to adapt the activity, depending on your specific learning objectives.

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