Explaining Molecular Biology using Blocks and Bricks

Guest post by Danny Ward

This is something new! I offered a fellow science communicator on Twitter to write a guest post for my blog and the only requirement I named him was to pick a subject of his choosing that either makes a cool experiment or has a suitable explanation for children and teens. And Danny had the perfect outreach activity in mind which he gladly explains in the following post. He studies how some micro-organisms are able infect things and how we can potentially stop them in the future. Check out his Twitter (@DannyJamesWard) or Instagram (@dannyjamesward) if you want to know more about his work!

Molecular biology is the study of the tiny bio-molecules which make us a cell. These often come in the form of DNA, RNA and proteins.
DNA and RNA act as the genetic instructions for a living thing and tell it how to look and function. These genetic instructions come in the form of a code. This code is turned in to proteins which are biological structures which make the genetic instructions a reality – they are what make up the living thing.

This is the case whether we are dealing with a tiny microscopic virus, a plant by the side of the road or a large elephant. All living things work with this basic system.
Communicating this in the form of a scientific outreach activity can be tough. There are a lot of abstract things that require a good imagination and mental visualisation to fully understand. We can’t see any of the things I just spoke about unless we’re using high-tech scientific instruments!

I was involved in a scientific outreach activity which aimed to visualise this process with a young target audience in mind of ages from 5 to 15 years old.
This activity used conventional building bricks and blocks not uncommonly found in your average toy box to build plants, incorporating the fundamentals of molecular biology.

Blocks and bricks like these can be used to explain molecular biology.
Picture by Danny Ward.

Participants would pick five coloured instruction cubes at random from a box. These cubes represented DNA as they served as the instructions. Based on what colours a child had picked up, and how many of each would lead to different plant building instructions. The child would use these instructions to build their own plant using building bricks.

Examples of such instructions included the following:

Do you have two red instruction cubes? Pick up 10 green bricks.
Do you have any brown instruction cubes? Add three leaves to your plant.
Do you not have a purple instruction cube? Build a really tall plant.
Do you have more than three different colours of instruction cubes? Add flowers to your plant.

Using these rules, children were then given the opportunity to build their plant.

Children build their own plants according to the instructions.
Picture by Danny Ward.

Following this, participants were then asked to pick up two environment cards. These were cards which had environmental conditions which would change the plant at the genetic level by changing the rules again. This helps to introduce the idea that DNA isn’t fixed, certain genes can respond to the environment and that the environment can impact how living things can look and function too.

Examples of environment cards included:

Cold, icy weather approaches. Remove all leaves.
The rain has come. Build your plant 5 bricks taller using only green bricks.
Its springtime, all the bumblebees have come out to say hello. Add 5 colourful flowers to your plant.

This activity helped to convey the idea that genetic instructions are what build living things like plants using proteins. These genetic instructions can lead to lots of variation. The environment can then add further variation. All participants started off with just five coloured instruction cubes, but ended up with final plants which all looked radically different to each other.

Participants were then able to showcase their plant creations. We had a plant garden which served as a museum-like display where all the final creations were put to show all the different kinds of plants which were created on the day.

The plant garden shows off all the different plants the children built.
Picture by Danny Ward.

The outreach activity was led by real molecular biology research scientists and so work on the concepts taught every day.

The kids seemed to really enjoy the activity and by the end of it, they had a good grasp on the concepts at hand. Many of those who took part, especially the younger children, had very limited exposure, if any, to molecular biology. Some people had heard of DNA before, but they didn’t know what it was or why it was important. I know I was the same when I was their age too, its often not fully taught until much later. By the end of the session, all who took part were familiar with the idea that DNA, a form of instructions which living things use are part of the reason why living things look the way that they do.

While this activity used plants as an example but there is no reason why it couldn’t be adapted in future to feature other living things instead. Build your own animal, build your own virus or even build your own person could all be possible using the instruction cube and building brick concept. Perhaps, for certain audiences, it could even be taken a step further. Maybe the idea of genetic inheritance or epigenetics could be introduced.

The nice part about this activity is that it looks like fun from a distance. This may seem trivial but for members of the general public walking past a stall in a busy environment, that initial draw to pull people in is so important. If a child sees other children having fun building with these bricks and learning from real scientist, they may very well want to join in. Had the stall instead been a few sheets of dense complex information printed out and left on the table explaining the same concepts without anyone there to talk to, I highly doubt many of people would have visited the stall and even fewer would have taken any new meaningful understanding away from that. The fact that it was hands-on, got people creative, taught people about cool new concepts they probably had never heard of before and then related this to the real world, I think is what helped to make it successful.

This article was written by Danny Ward, a molecular microbiology PhD student from Norwich, England.
Learn more about the author at https://dannyjamesward.wixsite.com/home

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