Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Teens Stake a Claim on Their DNA - and the Lessons Stick

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Teens Stake a Claim on Their DNA - and the Lessons Stick

Article excerpt

At Fremont High School here in Oakland, biology lab goes beyond traditional frog dissection and uses a touch of performance art to get at important science lessons and the ethical issues behind them.

As part of his annual unit on genetics, 10th-grade biology teacher Steven Miller asks his students to "copyright" their DNA - a molecule that scientists believe to be the basis of human biology because it holds the blueprint for everything from the color of a person's hair to the shape of one's nose.

The copyrighting exercise is a way of establishing students' claim on their own DNA. It encourages them to think beyond the biological aspects of DNA and confront moral concerns sparked by the patenting and sale of genetic material.

The technique is easy and inexpensive. First, each student self- addresses an envelope. Standing next to the front page of the local newspaper, they pose for photos - tongue sticking out with postage stamp attached.

Human cheeks shed cells constantly inside the mouth. By licking a stamp, or the glue on an envelope, cheek cells on the tongue stick to the glue. As the glue dries, the cheek cells and their DNA are fixed into place.

The newspaper provides a date-stamp for the picture, and when the students mail the pictures to themselves, the government postmark on the sealed envelope makes the date official. When the process is complete, students have created what's known as a "poor person's copyright" for their DNA.

A similar process has long been used by artists and songwriters to informally copyright their work. Although the DNA version may not hold up in a courtroom, it serves Mr. Miller's purpose by making his lessons tangible.

"The problem teachers face is that we're presenting a lot of this material in an abstract way already, and the kids are getting antsy because we haven't been doing too many labs," Miller says. "So how do you raise the ethical questions - which the kids like - in a way that's got a hands-on aspect to it?"

Miller found his answer in the "DNA Project" (www.mudhaus.com/ marilyn). Founded by San Francisco artist Marilyn Donahue, the grass-roots venture aims to get people thinking about genetics research and patenting. Ms. Donahue sees her act of copyrighting DNA as a type of performance art that continues to have an impact.

She also wanted to help educate people about science, partly because of her background in pharmacology. "I saw that the public didn't get involved in scientific issues until it was too late, and then it would become a fear reaction. I think it's important that people get involved in the discussion at a much earlier point," she says.

Miller read about Donahue's project and is now in his second year of using the idea in his classroom. That's a move that pleases Donahue because, she says, "the children are inheriting this whole problem. …

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