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Paper based analogues

EMBL have put together a classroom resource that helps students understand the key concepts in PCR through purely paper-based activities
Hello, everyone. My name is Vivien Freihen. And I’m an education officer at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, or EMBL. In this video, I would like to introduce you to Copy that!, a paper-based teaching resource on Polymerase Chain Reaction, or PCR for short. This resource is perfect for teaching PCR in the classroom, even if you don’t have any lab equipment.
In this resource, the students are tasked with designing primers in a PCR programme in order to detect a viral gene. The activity workflow represents authentic, practical considerations researchers in molecular biology laboratories face on a daily basis. Step by step, the worksheet takes the students through this complex process and provides them with key instructions to help them master the task.
Invented in the early 1980s, it has become an indispensable technique in labs worldwide and has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993. In the last few years, PCR has become popular as being the best method to detect viral infections. A PCR cycle consists of three main steps. First, a double-stranded DNA is denatured by increasing the temperature, which leads to a separation of the two DNA strands. In the next step, the temperature is lowered. And short single-stranded DNA sequences, the so-called primers, bind or anneal to complementary-based sequences in the template DNA.
In the last step, an enzyme, so-called DNA polymerase, uses a single nucleotides in the reaction mixture to synthesise new DNA strand that is complementary to the template strand. After this, the cycle of denaturation, annealing, and extension is started again. This way, PCR allows the exponential amplification of very few or even single DNA molecules. This makes it one of the most important techniques for scientists who use it, for example, to analyse whether a gene is present or not, or to generate enough DNA to use it for molecular cloning or sequencing.
This resource is designed for students aged 16 to 20. Students should be familiar with fundamental concepts of DNA, RNA, and cDNA. It will also be beneficial if they already know some basics of PCR.
The resource provides fact sheets to introduce the students to new topics and equip them with the information they need to complete the exercises. The teacher has the opportunity and the freedom to choose which of the fact sheets to hand out to their students. The material provided with the resource also includes a cutout mask for the detection of primers in a fraction of the cDNA sequence of a viral gene, as well as the data sheet for the ELLS Taq polymerase.
I’m going to show you how this part of the activity works in this short video. To find potential primers in a DNA sequence, students will cut out the Discover Your Primer Mask, as well as the white window within the mask. The students will move the mask over the provided DNA sequence and look for primer sequences that fit the characteristics mentioned on the mask. To limit the number of potential primers that can be found and to make the activity manageable, for the students, we included a few deliberate limitations to the primer characteristics– for example, regarding the length of the primers Searching the primers in the double-stranded DNA sequence provided might help the students identify and note down the reverse primer.
Once the students have found the primers, they can use the ELLS Taq polymerase data sheet to design the PCR programme to amplify the sequence. The final exercise is to interpret the image of an agarose gel and identify individuals carrying the viral gene.
By using this resource, students will design PCR primers and gain in-depth knowledge on PCR by solving an authentic problem. They will interpret PCR results and understand why this fundamental method is still Indispensable I hope you and your students will enjoy using this PCR paper-based activity. Let us know how to get on in the discussion section below.

There might be certain techniques that are essential for students to understand whilst studying genomics – in the UK, Germany and many other European countries, PCR and gel electrophoresis are usually core elements of the curricula.

These techniques are often better suited to ‘doing’ rather than just reading about – but how can we achieve this on a low budget?

The science education team at EMBL have put together a classroom resource that helps students understand the key concepts in PCR through purely paper-based activities.

We’ve also linked below some other great paper-based activities to help students understand key genomics principles and techniques.

What are your favourite paper-based or low budget activities to support students’ understanding of genomics techniques?


Copy That! (ELLS) : Paper based PCR activity

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Genomics for Educators

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