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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 ūüėČ . 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 ūüôā .


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!

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.

DNA Sweets

24 Oct

The Manchester Science Festival is in full swing and I’ll be heading down to the Science Spectacular in the Manchester Museum on Saturday (October 29th) to do some take away science! One of the activities that you can come along and try (and take away – y’get it?!) is DNA sweets. As the name may suggest, you can make a model of DNA out of sweets. In case you can’t make the day, here’s how to make your own model instead. I adapted this from a website’s instructions you can see here.

Step 1 – Your bits and pieces

  • 10 wine gums to in 4 colours – the different colours represent the bases¬†A,T,C and G. It doesn’t matter which colour represents which base but because C always pairs up with G and A always pairs up with T you have to make sure you have the right number of each (i.e. equal amounts of A and T, and equal amounts of C and G).
  • 2 strawberry pencil candies – these will represent the sugar-phosphate backbone of the DNA.
  • 5 cocktails sticks – for structural support.
  • 1 pipe cleaner – also to hold the model together but you also use is to carry/hang the DNA. If you can’t get hold of a pipe cleaner, wire would do.

Step 2 – Matching up your bases

Match together the As and Ts, and Cs and Gs. In this case C is red, G is black, T is yellow and A is orange. Carefully (I manages to give myself a splinter) poke the cocktail stick through the two matched up bases.

Step 3 – Attach the base pairs to a pipe cleaner

Wrap the end of the pipe cleaner around the cocktail stick in between the wine gums.

Step 4- Attach all the base pairs to the pipe cleaner

Pretty self explanatory. Leave about an inch between the cocktail stick of each base pair.

Step 5 – Add the strawberry pencil/phosphate back bone

Poke the cocktail stick from the first base pair you attached to the pipe cleaner through the tip of the strawberry pencils.

Step 6 – Create the double helix

You do this by twisting the next cocktail stick so its at a 90 degree angle to the cocktail stick above it and while it’s at this angle push the strawberry pencil through the cocktail stick. Repeat this for all the cocktail sticks/base pairs until they are all attached the strawberry lace/phosphate sugar back bone.

Step 7 – Give it a twist

Finally, give it a twist to emphasise the double helix structure and voila – DNA made from sweets!

Nerve Cell Derby – Attack of the Giant Nerve Cell

8 Oct

A few months ago I did a stand called ‘Nerve Cell Derby’ at the Manchester Science and Engineering Fair. Now, unless you really like paper mache, poster paints, and spending 3 months worth of evenings constructing models of¬†giant¬†neurones, I wouldn’t¬†recommend trying this activity. It was, however, very fun and I’m quite proud of the 8 foot¬†monstrosity so I thought I’d post it on here.¬†

My PhD is focused on researching motor proteins. These little guys spend their lives inside our cells, literally walking (they have tiny legs) along  microscopic tubes Рimaginatively named microtubules. They grab hold of cargoes like organelles and other proteins and transport them to a different part of the cell.

The aim of this game was to guess which motor protein  would be the first to make it from the cell boy of a nerve cell to the axon. The motor proteins in question  were actually small toy cars cleverly disguised to look like a motor protein through the use of polystyrene balls and cocktail sticks. The school students won a chocolatey prize if they guessed correctly BUT had to listen to me or a fellow PhD student explain motor proteins first if they wanted to play.

The nerve cell was particularly difficult to transport. My friend helped me take it to the the fair in her Vauxhall Astra Рthe only way we could fit it on was to put the seats down and open the window. We must have looked pretty strange driving round Manchester city centre with half a giant nerve synapse hanging out of the front window.

At the end of the 3-day science fair there was no where to store the giant nerve cell so a care taker cut it into three pieces and put it in a skip. That was pretty gutting. Moral of the story; plan ahead and arrange storage if you ever decided to make an 8ft neurone.