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Colour in a Cell

5 Jul

coloured in cellThis weekend I’m heading over to  Live from Jodrell Bank. The huge astrophysics centre is turning into a music venue for 2 days to host – amongst others – The Australian Pink Floyd, Johnny Marr and New Order. The real star of the show, however, (pun intended) is the science 😉 . If you’re going to the event be sure to swing by the science arena. They’ll be Science Grrl, The Manchester Immunology Group Worm Wagon and Manchester Girl Geeks. They’re just the ones I know about!

I’ll also be there running the Cell Cookies activities. This time I’ve designed a new hand out which is ‘Colour in a Cell’.

For the colour in sheet click here.

Click here for a sheet with more info on the structures.

I think this is suitable for anyone who likes colouring in! In terms of students maybe 11 – 13 year olds? What do you think? I’d love to get feedback and there’s a comment section below begging to typed in 🙂 .


Pharmacology Activity: Drug Testing

20 Feb

Back in October I ran some workshops relating to careers in Bio-Sciences. Each activity we did related to a particular degree programme and this one was all about Pharmacology.

MP900337294As I’m sure you can appreciate I didn’t want to test any drugs that could be deemed even vaguely dangerous…imagine the risk assessments *shudder*. So, to maintain a balance between real world applications and safety we tested the effectiveness of some ‘new compounds’ that a drugs company were thinking of introducing into the market to treat heartburn. These new drug candidates were in fact Boots bog standard antacids mixed with varying amounts of Trebor XXXX mints.


After discussing stomach acid, heartburn and how antacids worked the students had to test out the drug candidates. Once the students had tested the drug candidates’ effectiveness they had to make a recommendation as to which one a pharmaceutical company should use in their new antacid drug.

If you want to do this activity you will need:

  • Antacids.
  • Chalky mints.CIMG1566
  • Something to crush the above. I used a pestle and mortar. Now anything else I try to crush in it tastes minty.
  • Around 0.5-1ml of Aspall White Wine vinegar per test – it’s a really dilute, weak acid so works very well and much more reproducible than making up dilute acid in different schools.
  • Something to put the 1ml of vinegar in (I used eppendorf tubes), preferably with a lid so it can be inverted with solution in.
  • pH indicator strips – must be pH scale not litmus paper (we used some Whatman ones my supervisor let me swipe from lab). The change in pH isn’t dramatic enough to be detected by litmus paper as the tablets are just a buffer and won’t turn the solution into an alkali. I think you could use pH indicator solution as well if the students only add a tiny drop, but using the strips is quite fun.
  • A worksheet the students can write the pH of the acid before and after the addition of drug and jot down the recommendations to the drug company on which compound to use in their antacid.
Eppendorf Tube

Eppendorf Tube

Step 1. (Prep) Crush the antacids and mints. Make three mixes: 1) Equal mix of antacid and mints 2) Just mints and 3) Just antacids. Pre-measure them (although you could get the students to do this – we were short on time) and separate them into labelled tubes. We gave each group 3 eppendorf tubes about a quarter full of containing one of each mix.

Step 2. (Prep) Pre-measure out the vinegar into whatever you’re using to hold it , we used eppendorfs*. Each group will need 3 tubes of vinegar.

Step 3. The students need to measure the pH of the ‘acid’ before. They only need to do this with one.

Step 4. Tip the drug candidates into the acid and invert several times.

Step 5. Measure the pH after addition of drug candidates and based on their findings students can write their recommendation to the Pharmaceutical company as to which compound is most effective.

The only word of caution I would give in this practical is the vinegar is pretty pongy. Also, the mints quite clearly smell like mints so if anyone has suggestions for something else to use it would be greatly appreciated!

*If you choose to use eppendorfs like us, consider piercing a hole in the top and telling the students to protect their fingers with a piece of blue roll/tissue when inverting the tube.  We didn’t do this on the first session and I’d forgotten that mixing acid with a carbonate base will produce H2O and CO2 (D’Oh! Basic Chemistry). The CO2 causes pressure build up and the eppendorf pops open (for the Biologists reading this – the same way they pop when you over boil gel samples). This was actually fine – the teacher found it funny and the students loved it, plus we talked about the reaction and pressure but it isn’t actually relevant for this practical. If you wanted to demonstrate how the gas is produced in this reaction for a chemistry practical however, this would work really well!

Mini-Beasts Microbiology Activity

20 Jan

This activity was part of the workshops I ran back in October and it was my mini-beastsfavourite practical in the session. During the workshops each activity was related to a university degree course and this one was related to Microbiology. It involves viewing protozoa, nematodes and algae under a microscope and it’s a real crowd pleaser. I had two cultures, one enriched with algae and the other enriched with protozoa.

First we discussed the different types of single-celled organisms and I explained that we had protazoa and algae (plus a few nematodes – not single-celled!), which are a lot larger than bacteria and viruses. The students were given microscopes slides labelled A and B. On the white board/powerpoint there were numbered pictures of organisms that could be seen in either of the samples.  The students had to identify which organisms from the board were in which sample.

A colleague told me about the cultures you can buy from this great company, MP900439410sciento. They’re really reasonably priced but it’s still probably more than most schools would pay for what would only be one or two experiments. This means the chances of the students having seen something similar are quite slim. They look great on most school microscopes but if you are taking this activity into a school, rather than doing it with your own microscopes, ask if you can use their best ones. In one school we used their KS3 (as opposed to KS4) and although they still looked ok, it wasn’t as amazing as when we used KS4 microscopes.

These are the cultures I used in this activity, which allowed me to have two distinct samples for the students could compare:

If you don’t need two different samples this mixed culture is visible under school microscopes and is a bit cheaper:

The algae are beautiful, colourful in all shapes and sizes. The protozoa really move around a lot, which is great to watch!

I’ve also done other Cell Biology themed workshops at university with these cultures where KS3 students used university microscopes to visualise these as examples of single-celled organisms (the protozoa do have nematodes in though) and compared them to bacteria and their own cheek cells.

Whatever you decide to do with these cultures, they are lovely to use and can really enthuse students about Biology.

Musical DNA

10 Apr

Last year I did a stand at the Faculty of Life Sciences Community Open Day called ‘Musical DNA’. As the name might suggest the activity involves music and DNA, a match made in 4 note heaven!

There’s going to be another FLS community day on the June 30th in the Michael Smith Building. If you have an interest in Biology, have ever wondered what research lab is like or just fancy a fun day out I stronglyrecommend coming down . It’s free and if last year’s event was anything to go by it’ll be an awesome day.

The Message

Each 'side' or strand of DNA can act as a template to make a new complete DNA molecule.

But back to musical DNA; the activity is based around the concept that DNA has 4 bases named A, T, C and G, which are complimentary in that A always pairs with T and C always pairs with G. The bases pair up down the centre of the DNA’s double helix. Imagine you were to untwist DNA’s double helix, so rather than looking like a spiral staircase it looked like a ladder, and then yanked it apart into two strands. Each strand would have one set of bases. Now imagine you take one of the strands away. Because you know that A matches with T and C matches with G, you can rebuild the other strand so you had a complete DNA helix again.

This is the way your cells make two copies of DNA when one cell needs to divide into two. We all started from a single fertilised egg with one copy of our DNA. That single cell has given rise to the trillions of cells that make up our body. Every time a new cell is made, the DNA is copied by breaking the DNA apart into two strand and building up the other half of each strand.

The Activity

Use this worksheet  to work out the complimentary strand. Once you’ve done that you can play the complementary ‘Strand 2’ on the labelled keyboard.
Label the following keys (pictured left);

Strand 1 (Lower) ->

C = C      E = G

F = T      G = A

Strand 2 (Upper)->

C = C      D = A

E = T      G = G

WARNING: Turns out the only famous song that contains just 4 notes is ‘Mary had a little lamb’. If you choose to do this activity be prepared for that song to be stuck in your head for a week.

My good friend Louise Walker (follow her on twitter @Louise_P_Walker) worked out what tune to use and how to label the notes. This was very fortunate as anyone who has heard my attempts karaoke can tell you I do not have a musical bone in my body. For those who are musically inclined ‘Strand 1’ can also be played at the same time and should complement the tune. I’m pretty sure you could extrapolate/differentiate the  activity to include chords that could correspond to amino acids coded by DNA, but that seemed a bit much for a table top activity at the open day. If you do try it and it works please let me know by commenting below, contacting me here or tweeting me @Bio_Fluff.

So there you go, DNA can be musical!

DNA Whispers

30 Nov

That boy LOVES DNA whispers.

DNA is exciting. It’s the bees knees. But if you have an attention span like mine its hard to stay on the ball when someone is talking about DNA for longer than, say…5 minutes.  DNA whispers is the perfect way to keep an audience of people like me (i.e. easily distractable) engaged.

It’s a really simple activity that highlights the amazing ability of our cells to copy DNA. You write a DNA sequence down in A, T, C and G’s then give it to the first member of the audience. Get that person to whisper it to the next member of the audience. The second person then whispers it to the next person and this continues until the last audience member. At this point the last person says the sequence aloud. You can either hold up the written down code or incorporate the code into your powerpoint and then the group can then see if they got the DNA sequence right or (more likely) wrong.

The length of the sequence depends on your audience size and age but this works well for an audience of around 10 teenagers;


If you have a larger group maybe make the sequence shorter – its surprisingly difficult to remember.

Here’s some fun facts you might want to include about DNA replication;

  • Cells in your body are constantly dividing – especially if you’re still growing.
  • Your gut cells divide every 3 days and your skin cells divide every 6 weeks. That means the skin you can see right now is completely different to the one you were looking at *insert date 6 weeks ago or in the future*.
  • Even Boston Terriers like DNA whispers.

    The genes that are coded in DNA are the instructions that tell your cells how to exist. Every time your cells divide all the DNA needs to be copied so that the two new cells both have copy of these genetic instructions.

  • If there is a mistake when the DNA is copied then the cell that gets those faulty instructions will either die or worse – can lead to diseases like cancer.
  • We just tried to pass the DNA  message or ‘copy’ the DNA *insert number of people in the audience* times. In the last *multiply number of audience members by 3* days your gut cells have copied their DNA that many times. EXCEPT we actually have about 3billion bases (the A, T, C and G’s) in every one of our cells so the gut cells have copied about 40million times more DNA.

Depending on the group you speak to you could mention that because of the importance in replicating the DNA properly our cells have proof reading mechanisms that spot mistakes when copying DNA.

And there you have it – DNA whispers!

Protein Jewellery – Building a Necklace out of Amino Acid Beads.

21 Nov

Annette modelling this season's hydrophilic peptide range.

How can jewellery better represent biological compounds? Its a problem that’s troubled me for years. Luckily a group of us found the solution a few months back when we came up with the idea of beads representing amino acids that can be strung together to make a protein. My jewellery-based dream came true when I got to sport my own protein necklace at the Science Spectacular earlier this month. It was ace.

There are quite a few activities you can do based around the idea of beads representing amino acid. An old colleague (who was in the group that came up with the idea) used to do an activity called ‘Mutation Station’ which demonstrated how changes in DNA can cause changes in protein.

For the activity ‘Protein Jewellery’ there are several concepts covered and it can be scaled up or scaled down according to which concepts you would like to cover. The main point is that all animals, whether they be human, cow, pig, ostrich, snake, owl or even…erm…….ant, they’re all made out of protein. The building blocks of these proteins are amino acids. Our DNA contains 4 bases A, T, C and G and it is the order of these bases that hold the instructions for how to put these amino acids together and make a protein. When we talk about genes, that means a portion of your DNA that codes for a specific protein.

Below are the worksheets we used at the Science Spectacular. In each case there were pots of beads labelled with an amino acid 3 letter abbreviation. There’s also a hand out with an explanation of protein synthesis here.

Worksheet 1

From this sheet you can simply pick a protein from the list (by the by, these are sequences I just made up – they don’t correspond to an actual protein) and assemble it using the labelled beads. The take home message is that we’re made out of protein and proteins are made out of the ‘building blocks’ amino acids.

Worksheet 2 and 3

This version is a bit more difficult. The idea is to use the key to convert the DNA sequence into a protein. The sheets were laminated so that the jewellery maker could write on the amino acids using a dry wipe pen and then the sheet could be reused. The take home message is that protein is made out of amino acids AND that our DNA contains the instructions for how to build the proteins using amino acids.

This was the hydrophobic protein necklace.

In both cases you can discuss the fact proteins can have properties like charge or solubility. The way the necklace turns out largely depends on what colour bead you choose for each amino acid. I designed all the sequences to be symetrical so hopefully they should always turn out pretty snazzy. Its a good idea to have a finished nacklace/bracelet to check whether the jewellery maker has translated their protein right. Or not. It’s your call.

I’m pretty sure this activity can be used for any age group from 11 years upwards and it should tie in with the AS-level syllabus covering protein synthesis. In either case, you get to make merge biology with accessories – what more could you ask for in a 10 minute activity? Judging from the visitors at the science spectacular – free sweets!

Cell Cookies Activity

2 Nov

So it was the Science Spectacular on Saturday and it was an amazing – but busy -day. At this point in time I think I should publicly apologise for the numerous children who may have became hyperactive due to the sugary treats we were pedalling. Let’s face it though, the best way to communicate science is through the medium of confectionery.

Some of the fantastic creations courtecy of the Science Specacular visitors

The Stand was divided into three portions; DNA sweets (which I previously blogged about), Cell Cookies and Protein Bracelets. I’ll put some more details up about the protein bracelets soon but for now I’ll run through cell cookies.

Up until now you may have thought the main function of digestive biscuits, giant chocolate buttons and jelly beans was to act as delicious treats. You were wrong. Together, they actually make a fantastic cell model. Who knew?

The premise of the activity is fairly simple. Digestive biscuits act as the base for animal cells and square crackers are plant cells. You can then add icing sugar, which acts as the cytoplasm that the sweetie organelles are attached to. Here’s the sweets I used for organelles;

Nucleus – Giant Chocolate Button

Mitochondria – Mini Jelly Beans

Cell Membrane – Red Laces (Only if you’re using larger biscuits)

Vesicles – Sugar balls (cake decorations)

Endoplasmic Reticulum – Jelly Snake

Golgi apparatus – Jelly Squirms

Chloroplasts – Chopped up green wine gums (left over from DNA sweets)

Cell Wall – Green fizzy lace.

I’m well happy with my cell cookie.

We realised on Saturday that the activity works really well at a science fair aimed at families because the younger children tend to be interested in the cookies, and the parents are interested in what’s inside cells. I think this could be a good as a group activity for children (or adults) of all ages as the amount of details you include can be adjusted. Also, if you were going to do this as an activity for AS level students it might be worth buying bigger biscuits to ensure you can get all the organelles on – maybe a water biscuit.

I’ve uploaded the instruction sheets I used on the here and as I haven’t had time to write about research yet (which is cell biology) this link provides some great info on cells.