May the alleles be ever in your favor

I could already sense the festivity in the air when I arrived at the Maker’s Faire in downtown Shreveport early on a Saturday morning. I scanned the rows of vendors and food trucks as I looked for my target – the booth for Sciport: Louisiana’s Discovery Center. With help from the center and my mentor, Dr. Rebecca Murphy, I was able to participate in creating an activity to explain the research I did last summer through the American Society of Plant Biologists Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (ASPB SURF), to people of varying ages and backgrounds. My research centered on the genetics and molecular basis of flowering time in sorghum, and our activity was designed around the concept that plant scientists have the ability to control the natural “randomness” of genetics in the form of genetic engineering to create plants with desired traits in an effective way.

 The setup of the activity is pretty simple and straightforward: a metal bingo cage filled with three differently colored balls and three sets of small plastic drawers that are painted to match. Each drawer contains leaves of a particular shape, petals of a particular color, or stems of varying length.

 As children approach our table, I ask them – “Would you like to try the game?” The children are then allowed to turn the bingo cage to collect three randomly colored balls – the hands on nature of this portion of the activity really engages them.  As they then open the corresponding drawer for each color to select their plant parts, they exclaim to one another:

 “I got a long stem!”

“I got pink!”

“I got yellow, but I want a pink one too!”

I then ask: “Wouldn’t you like to know what is in all of the drawers before you put your flower together?  Would you like to know all of the options?”

 Many of them agree and begin looking in drawers and trading plant parts for various other plant parts.  As they begin to assemble the flower, now composed of all of their favorite parts, I use this opportunity to explain that nature selects things randomly through inheritance of DNA, much like the bingo cage method of choosing the plant parts. However, once a plant scientist knows many of the possibilities that exist in the DNA, they are able to make real plants with things we want!

 The kids are then able to take their flower home, along with samples of popped sorghum and sorghum syrup, as a tribute to our model system. Though communicating about science to children can be challenging, it was also a lot of fun and exciting for me as well! I’m looking forward to talking about my research with other plant biologists at the ASPB meeting, Plant Biology 2016, this summer in Austin.

 If you’d like more information on how this activity was set up, please contact us!

 This post originally was published here at the Children of the Sorghum blog.

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