Communication and Engagement

Engagement Activity: The DNA Repair Race

I recently wrote a Research Advances piece about the role of the KLF8 protein in DNA repair and cancer. The DNA damage response is a relatively new area of research and responsible for a new generation of cancer drugs targeting the mechanisms by which cancer cells repair their DNA to avoid apoptosis. DNA repair also has a role in normal cells, correcting errors in the DNA and preventing cancerous transformation.

Research into DNA repair at the Cancer Research UK Institute, University of Birmingham, is carried out by the Stewart and Petermann labs. We went to the university community open day earlier this year to test out a new DNA repair engagement game: “The DNA Repair Race”. This post is about how we turned this area into an engagement game with a little inspiration, a trip to a DIY store, and some DNA repair scientists.

If you fancy recreating this game this is what you will need:

  • Couple of meters of plastic guttering cut into 1m sections with the ends blocked off
  • Two buckets containing mutlicoloured (red, green, blue, yellow) ball pool balls
  • Stopwatch
  • A top gear style best times board
  • Oven gloves
  • Twister spinner board

DNA excision repair; picture from Dr. Fischer’s webpage

Normal cells require the process of DNA repair to detect and prevent the passage of DNA errors to their “daughter cells”.  Whilst there are different types of DNA repair process, such as those which involve breaks in the DNA strand, we tried to demonstrate the process by which a small area of damage, caused by a damaged nucleotide or base, is removed and replaced by reading the opposite strand.  The activity we came up with required the children to take on the role of DNA polymerase and quickly fill in the damaged section by following a DNA base code, and goes something like this.

After a quick introduction to DNA, mutations in the DNA code and cancer, the children were paired up in front of a table with two pieces of guttering, two buckets of balls, and two laminated DNA code sheets. The code sheets showed 18 coloured circles (the number of balls that will fit in 1m of guttering) containing the relevant base letter(e.g. C-yellow, G-red, T-green, and A-blue) representing the base sequence to be reproduced. A researcher then calls out:

“The cell has detected DNA damage it needs to be corrected before the cell divides and the mistake gets passed on. Your job is to fill in this section of DNA with the code in front of you. On your marks, get ready,…Go!”.

The children then race to replace the damaged part of the DNA with the correct sequence of balls as quickly as possible, the winner getting a spot on the best times board.

Now to make it a little more difficult; the process is repeated but this time the cell has an error in it’s DNA repair system; it is no longer normal. The children get to spin the twister board to find out what error the cell has. These were the possibilities we came up with:

The DNA has lost a repair enzyme. The cell requires these specialised proteins to carry out the work, the loss of this protein makes it more difficult to do the job. You must try to repair the DNA in the same amount of time whilst wearing oven gloves.

The cell is dividing too fast. The way a cell devides is normally very tightly controlled by “breaks” in the cell that slows down the cell cycle and gives the cell time to repair and check the DNA. The breaks in you cell are faulty. You have 5 seconds less than your original time to complete the repair work.

The code is damaged. The cell normally reads the un-damaged strand of DNA to replace a section of DNA, but now both strands of DNA have been damaged. You have 10 seconds to remember this code then repair the DNA without the code sheet.

…The oven glove situation is my favourite, sending balls flying everywhere.

This second round is most likely unachievable and so it is explained that while a normal cell can maintain it’s DNA, preventing mistakes from getting passed on, cells that have defects in the way they repair DNA are more likely to pass on errors. These errors add up and, over time, a normal cell can be transformed into a cancer cell.

This game is best suited for children who can grasp the concept of genes in the DNA coding for proteins and those proteins having a job to do in the cell. They should be able to understand that if you make a protein using the wrong set of instructions it will not perform its job properly and the cell will suffer, and this is what happens in cancer when DNA is mutated.  By the end of the activity the children should have learnt that errors in the DNA can lead to cancer but cells have mechanisms to try to correct DNA damage to prevent errors being passed on.

As always you can comment if you have any questions/suggestions, I would love to hear what you think. Also, if you have a research area that you would like to demonstrate but cannot find a way to do so let me know and I shall put my thinking cap on.

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