The top DNA experiments for high school students include building a tool to identify DNA, testing unique DNA sequences to determine if they can make unique fingerprints, and engineering bacteria. These projects are NGSS-aligned and use industry-leading science techniques that will leave students pumped to learn more about their world!
Building a Tool to Identify DNA
DNA is the instructions that allow any genetic individual, such as a human or a plant, to reproduce itself. A complete set of these instructions is called the genome, and DNA is found in all living things including humans and animals.
Using a variety of materials and techniques, students will explore this fascinating subject. They will learn that DNA is more than just the genetic code for humans and other animals.
One of the best ways for high school students to discover this material is to build a tool to identify it. Specifically, they will build a gel electrophoresis chamber to compare molecules in food-coloring dye.
To build this tool, they will need stainless steel wire, nine-volt batteries, plastic foam, baking soda, and Agarose gel. They will place the gel and dye in the chamber to determine which is the fastest molecule to move through the gel.
Once they have built this tool, they can use it to compare the molecules in food-coloring dye to see if they are similar enough to identify a person’s DNA. This activity will take about one class period and involves a lot of movement and collaboration.
Divide the class into groups of two students each, and provide each group with a plate, 25 toothpicks, and 30 gumdrops. Explain that they are working on a criminal case where the police need help with their identification process. They have some blood and hair samples from these cases and want to know what these people’s phenotypes (physical characteristics) are.
Show the teams each of the color keys, and tell them that each color key contains three-base genotypes that code for a particular phenotype. They will match these phenotypes to the physical characteristics shown on their identity cards.
The groups will then construct a strand of their person’s DNA. They will be able to trade this strand with the other teams. They will then work backward from this strand only to determine the person’s identity. This activity requires cooperation and a little detective work, but it is an engaging and fun way to learn about DNA.
Building a Model of an Enzyme
The best way to understand enzymes is by creating a model of them. Enzymes are proteins that help cells do things like convert sugar into energy or replicate DNA. Without them, these tasks would take billions of times longer than they do.
When an enzyme binds to its substrate, it creates a special chemical environment that matches the properties of the substrate. This is what makes it unique and able to do its job.
To create an enzyme, scientists design amino acid sequences that will fold up into specific places in the protein to form the active site. Once an enzyme’s active site is built, scientists test it in the lab to see if it works.
One of the most common enzymes in the human body is DNA methyltransferase, which uses a specific pair of nucleotides to make new DNA. These pairs are adenine and guanine, and thymine and cytosine.
Another enzyme, hexokinase, converts a specific molecule of fatty acids into glycerol. This process can take billions of years to complete in a cell.
Enzymes are little protein robots inside the cells of our bodies. They grab a piece of the molecule and do something to it, then they move on to the next piece until their job is done.
As an example, the hexokinase enzyme that helps make fatty acids in our bodies can take billions of years to complete its job. Scientists have been working to create a faster version of this enzyme, but the molecules’ complexity has made it difficult.
To speed up the hexokinase, Baker and her team used what’s called directed evolution to change the structure of the enzyme. That process triggered random mutations that sped up the enzyme’s reactions.
This experiment is ideal for high school students, as it teaches them about the different parts of DNA and how they are replicated. It also reinforces concepts of base pairing, strand structure, and replication factors.
Forensic DNA Profiling
DNA profiling is a specialized branch of forensic science that uses patterns in short sections of DNA called STRs to identify people. This is a process that is used by law enforcement agencies around the world and can be used to help solve a variety of crimes.
Students can learn about this specialized field through school projects. Fingerprints, forensic anthropology, ballistics, or physical evidence can all be used to create a fun, hands-on project that helps high schoolers understand the complexities of this scientific field.
In addition, if you have students in your class who are interested in careers in forensics or genetics, there are many options for them to explore. For example, Towson University in Maryland offers a two-year FEPAC-accredited master of science program that focuses on the science of DNA analysis.
The school also offers an internship program that allows students to gain real-world experience working at local crime scene investigation centers and forensic laboratories. This is a great way for a high school student to get a feel for this highly specialized career and see if it might be the right fit for them.
Towson also has a number of undergraduate programs that focus on the science of DNA analysis. These programs offer a rigorous, interdisciplinary curriculum that will prepare students for an entry-level position in the field of forensics.
During their first year, students take courses in molecular biology, chemistry, and microscopy. They also participate in a research project that allows them to use the lab facilities at the university to further their knowledge of the field.
In addition to these school-based projects, there are a number of resources available online for students who want to learn more about forensics or DNA. For example, the National Institute of Justice provides a resource page that includes articles, videos, and other information about this specialized field. There is also a website dedicated to DNA profiling and its application in forensics.
Getting the genes you want into bacteria can be tricky. That’s why genetic engineers use special tools to extract and modify DNA.
If you’ve ever watched a TV show about biotechnology, you know that many experiments involve moving strands of DNA into an organism to make it work differently or grow in another way. In the lab, this can mean introducing new genes or proteins into an organism.
But this doesn’t have to be a difficult task. There are a few techniques that are safe and easy for high school students to use.
One is called recombineering, which lets scientists swap pieces of DNA of their choosing for specific regions of the bacterial genome without cutting or pasting them. The technique is often underused, however.
Researchers have a new method of supercharging this technique. It involves identifying and modifying proteins that enable the scarless transfer of DNA into bacteria’s DNA.
They’ve found two proteins that appear to be particularly effective. The researchers have also developed a new screening method to identify them.
This new technology, which they call multiplex automated genome engineering (MAGE), could greatly increase the potential of recombineering. MAGE enables the editing of multiple edits in one shot, a process that’s more efficient than conventional l-Red recombinase-based methods.
Recombineering is a valuable tool for reprogramming bacteria to do things like turn wood waste into fuel or produce antibiotics. But Wannier says that it’s also a great tool for reprogramming individual genes to do something different. For instance, he said, it could be used to replace a naturally occurring bacterial amino acid, the building blocks of proteins, with an artificial one.
That’s important for reprogramming bacteria to do the environmental cleanup, he said. That would be a major step toward the development of “virtual” sewage plants that can purify water using bacteria.
This type of reprogramming is particularly useful for bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics, Wannier said. In addition, it’s possible that recombineering will help scientists tackle other bacterial-based challenges, such as producing more powerful cancer drugs or reducing the number of bacteria that live in the human body.