ALEX Learning Activity


The Secret Code of Life

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  This learning activity provided by:  
Author: Nancy Caffee
System:Blount County
School:Blount County Career Technical Center
  General Activity Information  
Activity ID: 31
The Secret Code of Life
Digital Tool/Resource:
How Do Cells Make Proteins?
Web Address – URL:

This interactive website allows students to examine the process of how each protein is coded for in the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) which hold the “The Secret Code of Life”. Students are able to manipulate models to explore transcription to demonstrate how complementary nucleotides bind to ensure a correct copy. Next, students are able to manipulate and observe, step by step, the process of translation. Students are then able to observe the folding of proteins and experiment with a protein model simulation. Lastly, students are able to apply mutations to a simulated protein sequence to observe what happens to the protein.

This activity was created as a result of the GAP Resource Summit.

  Associated Standards and Objectives  
Content Standard(s):
SC2015 (2015)
Grade: 9-12
3 ) Formulate an evidence-based explanation regarding how the composition of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) determines the structural organization of proteins.

a. Obtain and evaluate experiments of major scientists and communicate their contributions to the development of the structure of DNA and to the development of the central dogma of molecular biology.

b. Obtain, evaluate, and communicate information that explains how advancements in genetic technology (e.g., Human Genome Project, Encyclopedia of DNA Elements [ENCODE] project, 1000 Genomes Project) have contributed to the understanding as to how a genetic change at the DNA level may affect proteins and, in turn, influence the appearance of traits.

c. Obtain information to identify errors that occur during DNA replication (e.g., deletion, insertion, translocation, substitution, inversion, frame-shift, point mutations).

NAEP Framework
NAEP Statement::
L12.9: The genetic information encoded in DNA molecules provides instructions for assembling protein molecules. Genes are segments of DNA molecules. Inserting, deleting, or substituting DNA segments can alter genes. An altered gene may be passed on to every cell that develops from it. The resulting features may help, harm, or have little or no effect on the offspring's success in its environment.

Unpacked Content
Scientific And Engineering Practices:
Engaging in Argument from Evidence; Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information
Crosscutting Concepts: Patterns
Disciplinary Core Idea: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes
Evidence Of Student Attainment:
  • Identify the structural components within a model of DNA including monomer units and hydrogen bonds.
  • Use models to demonstrate how information encoded in DNA leaves the nucleus.
  • Investigate the process of semi-conservative replication and compare the lead strand to the lagging strand.
  • Compare and contrast the functionality of multiple types of RNA and relate that function to protein synthesis.
  • Illustrate how mRNA serves as a template for building a polypeptide chain and how other types of RNA are utilized in the process.
  • Use a codon chart to determine the sequence of amino acids (polypeptide chains) that will be built from a given mRNA sequence.
  • Explain protein folding in terms of the rules of chemistry and physics to describe how the folding of the protein affects its function.
  • Relate the levels of protein structure to the final three-dimensional shape and functionality of the protein.
  • Cite and evaluate evidence that supports Watson and Crick's model of the double helix structure of DNA.
  • Annotate a diagram of the Central Dogma of Biology to include relevant discoveries and their implications on the understanding of the Central Dogma.
  • Evaluate the major findings of research projects such as the Human Genome Project, ENCODE, and the 1000 Genomes Project and modify my working definition of "a gene" based on the findings of those projects.
  • Communicate the impact of modern genome research projects on our understanding of gene structure and function.
  • Interpret the impacts of DNA changes using lab techniques such as gel electrophoresis, PCR, or computer based resources.
  • Explain gene expression in terms of genes being "turned on or off" and in broad terms identify the factors that influence gene expression.
  • Use data to support the concept that changes in DNA impact protein function in predictable ways.
  • Draw conclusions about errors that occur during replication.
  • Compare and contrast types of mutations and use a model to show how changes in DNA can result in changes in protein function.
Teacher Vocabulary:
  • Nitrogenous bases
  • Deoxyribose
  • Phosphates
  • Hydrogen bonding
  • Nucleotides
  • Semi-conservative replication
  • Central Dogma
  • Transcription
  • Various types of RNA, including those involved in protein synthesis (mRNA, tRNA & rRNA) and those associated with gene regulation (e.g., IncRNA, miRNA, siRNA) and post-transcriptional modification (snRNA)
  • RNA polymerase
  • Introns
  • Exons
  • Codon
  • Translation
  • Anticodon
  • Deletion
  • Insertion
  • Substitution
  • Variant
  • DNA sequencing
  • PCR
  • Gel electrophoresis
  • Big Science Projects conducted over last 30 years: Human Genome Project, The International Hap Map, ENCODE, Cancer Genome Atlas, 1000 Genomes project, ClinVar and ClinGen, and the Exome Aggregation
  • Consortium.
  • Deletion
  • Insertion
  • Translocation
  • Substitution
  • Inversion
  • Frameshift mutations
  • Point mutations
Students know:
  • All living things have DNA How the 5' and 3' orientation of DNA nucleotides results in the antiparallel nature of DNA.
  • The complementary nature of nitrogenous bases.
  • How hydrogen bonding holds complementary bases together across two DNA strands.
  • The basic mechanism of reading and expressing genes is from DNA to RNA to Protein (The Central Dogma of Biology).
  • The first step of the Central dogma is a process called transcription, which synthesizes mRNA from DNA.
  • The process where the mRNA connects to a ribosome, the code is read and then translated into a protein is called translation.
  • To become a functional protein, a translated chain of amino acids must be folded into a specific three-dimensional shape.
  • Historically important experiments that led to the development of the structure of DNA, including Mieshcer, Chargraff, Rosalind Franklin, Watson/Crick, etc.
  • DNA changes can be linked to observable traits in the natural world, such as diseases.
  • Common laboratory techniques are used to obtain evidence that supports the premise that DNA changes may affect proteins and in turn the appearance of traits.
  • Types of errors that can occur during replication and the impact these errors have on protein production and/or function.
Students are able to:
  • Build from scratch or work with previously constructed models of DNA to identify the key structural components of the molecule.
  • Obtain and communicate information (possibly through a conceptual model) describing how information encoded in DNA leaves the nucleus.
  • Obtain and expand explanation to include how the information transcribed from DNA to RNA determines the amino acid sequence of proteins.
  • Identify and describe the function of molecules required for replication and differentiate between replication on the leading and lagging DNA strands.
  • Group mRNA into codons and identify the amino acid associated with each codon. Create and manipulate polypeptide models to demonstrate protein folding.
  • Use a variety of resources (web-based timelines, original publications, documentaries, and interviews), explain how historically important experiments helped scientists determine the molecular structure of DNA, and develop the concept of the Central Dogma of Biology.
  • Analyze a variety of diagnostic techniques that identify genetic variation in a clinical setting.
  • Relate protein structure to enzyme function and discuss the causes and impacts of protein denaturation on both enzymes and structural proteins.
  • Identify the impact of DNA changes on the structure and/or function of the resulting amino acid sequences.
  • Predict the impact of errors during DNA replication in terms of protein production and/or function.
  • Classify types of DNA changes (deletions, insertions, and substitutions).
  • Use models to explain how deletions, insertions, translocation, substitution, inversion, frameshift, and point mutations occur during the process of DNA replication.
Students understand that:
  • The traits of living things are ultimately determined by inherited sequences of DNA.
  • The end product of transcription is always RNA, but the process produces many different types of RNA with varying functions.
  • DNA instructions are replicated and passed from parent to offspring, segregating traits across generations in a mathematically predictable manner.
  • A protein is a linear sequence of amino acids that spontaneously folds following rules of chemistry and physics.
  • A series of historically important experiments let to the current understanding of the structure of DNA and the Central Dogma of Biology.
  • Errors that occur during DNA replication can affect protein production and/or function. Important projects over the past 30 years have changed the definition of a "gene" and increased the ability to assess the impact of DNA variation in a trait or disease.
  • Genetic change can lead to altered protein function and the appearance of a different trait or disease.
AMSTI Resources:
ASIM Module:
Protein Synthesis Manipulative; Manipulating DNA; Genes and Consequences; Protein Synthesis with Words; Expanded DNA Extraction; HNPCC

Alabama Alternate Achievement Standards
AAS Standard:
SCI.AAS.B.HS.3- Recognize the structure of DNA which determines the characteristics of living organisms.

Learning Objectives:

  • Describe the process of how DNA determines the structure of proteins.
  • Explain the process of transcription.
  • Identify the four types of nucleotides: adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine (C).
  • Describe how it takes three nucleotides (called a triplet) to code for each amino acid of a protein. 
  • Explain the process of translation.
  • Explain how proteins fold.
  • Describe how mutations in the DNA affect the formation of the protein.
  Strategies, Preparations and Variations  

1. Beginning with the first page of the activity, students will read the article, "Proteins in the Cell" and answer the question, how does the cell make proteins from the information in the DNA?

2. Click the arrow at the top of the page to go to next page. Students will read the article on transcription. Working individually or with a partner, they will then use the interactive simulation of transcription to explore how a mRNA copy is made of the DNA. After practicing with the simulation, they will answer questions #1 and #2 at the bottom of the page.

3. Click the arrow at the top of the page to go to next page. Students will read the article on translation. They will then explore the process of translation by clicking the Translate or Translate step by step button to start translation. After exploring the interactive simulation, they will answer questions #3 and #4 at the bottom of the page.

4. Click the arrow at the top of the page to go to next page. Students will read the article on protein folding. They will then use the simulation to experiment with the various types of protein in the models. After exploring the interactive simulation, they will answer questions #5 at the bottom of the page.

 5. Click the arrow at the top of the page to go to next page. Students will read the article on mutation. They will then use the simulation to click on a DNA nucleotide to mutate it. Students can substitute a different nucleotide, insert a new nucleotide or delete a nucleotide. After exploring the interactive simulation, they will answer questions #6 and #7 at the bottom of the page.

6. Students will then click on "Generate Report" at the bottom of page 5, and they can choose to print the report or email it to the teacher for evaluation and assessment.

Assessment Strategies:

Students will answer the questions from each page then generate the answers for the teacher to assess.

Students can print the Response Summary or share the results with the teacher via email. 

Advanced Preparation:

Each student should have access to a computer or device to take the quiz.

Students can email the results from the activity so the teacher should share their email address with the students.

Each student can also print the results and turn them in to the teacher.

Variation Tips (optional):

Students can use the DNA to Protein activity to practice transcription and translation.


Notes or Recommendations (optional):

Students can work individually, in pairs, or groups of four. 

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