If you’re like me, you have been hearing a lot about epigenetics lately. I hope you don’t want me to define that term, because biologists don’t agree on what exactly it means. It is enough to say that epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression that pass from a cell to its progeny but that do not involve changes in the DNA sequence. Examples include chemical modifications to nucleotides and histones that help determine if DNA is accessible to be transcribed or not.
Epigenetic modifications seem to be pretty dang important, but practical implications are still very much unknown. Nevertheless, some people are taking epigenetics waaaay beyond the realm of scientific knowledge. The Wisdom and Intuition Network has posted two videos about epigenetics (no, they aren’t the “two great resources” I mentioned in the title). Check out the screenshots pasted here; they illustrate just one unsupported extrapolation of epigenetics research.
If you have been struggling to add epigenetics to your introductory biology class, I invite you to start with a fantastic video called “The Epigenetics of Identical Twins.” It comes from the Genetic Science Learning Center, which is affiliated with the University of Utah. It explains epigenetics with a series of metaphors illustrated with paper pull-tabs, fabrics, baskets, pins, wads of paper, tags, and tear-off diagrams. There’s even a sort of “rolling pin of life” and a waste bin called “THE PAST.” The soundtrack is fun, too.
That video is a great teaser that will make students want to learn more about epigenetics. And when you’ve taught them all they can handle, you can invite them to lick rats. Yes, you read correctly. Check out this “Lick Your Rats” activity, also from the Genetic Science Learning Center. That page has a lot of good information that you can use in your lessons, but I am pretty sure that you will want to skip right to the licking.
Find the box that says, “What kind of mother are you? Lick a rat pup!” Once you click START, your mouse cursor will turn into a mother rat’s head that can lick its pup for a simulated 7-day period. Basically, each click represents a lick. And as you click/lick, you can watch one of the pup’s genes become more “relaxed.” When I tried this, it took me a few seconds to get the hang of it. Once I became an expert I licked the HECK out of my pup, and the program responded with a humorously snide remark about my industriousness. It was fun and memorable.
If you have other great epigenetics resources to share, please add them to the comments!