Creating New Forms of Life
Author: Kelly M. Humpherys
Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute
This is a creative, open-ended activity that allows students' imaginations to "run wild," an activity that is designed for use at the end of a sophomore biology unit on genetics. Prior to this activity the students read and completed a report on the book "Jurassic Park," which deals with the use of biotech-nology to recreate animals (dinosaurs) which have been extinct millions of years. The scientists in "Jurassic Park" bring the dinosaurs to life using dinosaur DNA extracted from the blood of the dinosaurs found in the stomachs of mosquitoes fossilized in amber.
In this activity, the students are asked to use their imaginations to take the idea of biotechnology one step further. If scientists could someday bring back to life animals which once walked the face of the earth but are now extinct, the next logical step for science would perhaps be to create new forms of life--maybe even bring to life mythical creatures which before have only existed in the minds of men and women. In reality, to some extent scientists have already created new forms of life which have never, as far as we know, existed before on earth.
For example, scientists have used recombinant DNA technology to create glow-in-the-dark tobacco plants by inserting a gene from a firefly into a tobacco plant. The future application of this biotechnology might be to eliminate the need for street lights by lining our roadways with glow-in-the-dark trees.
One example which can be used to introduce the activity to the students is the mythical creature the mermaid. Ask students the following question: In order to create a mermaid, which genes from pre-existing animals would you utilize? Since many historians think the mermaid myth is based on the manatee, they can draw on genes mostly from the manatee and from the human female. Compile a list on the blackboard of the specific genes and their animals of origin that the students wish to use. For example, from the manatee the students might consider utilizing the genes responsible for tail and fin growth. However. they must be able to justify their choices. An animal created using genes for mostly aquatic features would probably not be a land dweller.
THIS IS NOT AN EXERCISE IN THE ETHICS OF CREATING SUCH LIFE FORMS BECAUSE THIS ISSUE SHOULD BE COVERED IN A SEPARATE BIOETHICS UNIT.
Students are not required to use a mythical creature but instead they can create their own animal. Their assignment is to use genetic engineering to create a fantasy animal utilizing genes from present day animals or plants.
Their completed assignment must include the following information:
a. The animal's scientific and common name
b. The animal's body structure and features including a complete listing of the genes and the animals of origin which were utilized to "create" each body feature.
c. The animal's habitat, what it eats, how it reproduces, etc. which all must correspond to its body features. For example, an animal with gills must spend more of its time in the water.
d. Any special characteristics that would help the animal survive in its habitat and the genes "responsible" for the characteristic.
e. A sketch of the animal with obvious body structures labeled.
Teacher Hints: Some of your artistic students will probably enjoy requirement (e) and you will probably receive some artistically excellent and well-thought out sketches. The students should be given at least one week to complete the assignment which gives them time to complete some library research, make a sketch of their animal and really think through the animal's habitat, features, etc.
Target Age: 9-12 Grade
Materials: An overhead transparency produced from an enlarged copy of the mermaid pictured below.
Safety Precautions: No hazardous materials or equipment are needed.
Teacher Prep Time: The time it takes to make an overhead transparency.
Student Activity Time: One 40 minute class period to introduce the activity. After doing the mermaid activity with the entire class, the teacher can allow the students to work in small groups and brain-storm on the animals that they want to "create." The bulk of the assignment is then completed out of class. Plan for two additional class periods if you wish to allow the students to share their creatures with the rest of the class.
A good reference for this classroom activity would by "After Man" by Dougal Dixon which includes detailed descriptions of animals that might evolve in the future.