DNA Model Activities

Instructor: Joanne Abramson

Joanne has taught middle school and high school science for more than ten years and has a master's degree in education.

Every DNA unit needs a DNA model! This lesson describes four fun and engaging DNA models that can be incorporated into your curriculum. Each model is designed to be completed in the classroom with everyday, household items.

The Basic DNA Model

Building a model of DNA is a classic project that allows active participation while students visualize and gain a better understanding of the molecule's structure. A DNA model can be created out of pretty much anything as long as the essential components are included. These components include representations of:

  • The sugar, deoxyribose, in the sugar-phosphate backbone
  • The phosphate group in the sugar-phosphate backbone
  • Color-coded nitrogenous bases - adenine (A), guanine (G), thymine (T) and cytosine (C)
  • The double-helix structure (in other words, a half-twist in the model)

The following four model descriptions all use everyday objects and are designed to be completed in the classroom. It is not necessary to make each of them. Choose the one that will work best with your students and that has the features you prefer. Or, provide the materials for all of the models and let the students decide which one they want to build.

Pipe Cleaner and Pony Bead Model

Materials:

  • Two different colors of pipe cleaners - Two of one color; one to two of another color
  • Six different colors of pony beads
  • Scissors

Instructions:

  • Take two lengths of pipe cleaners of the same color. Alternate stringing two different colors of pony beads along the length of each pipe cleaner. Space out the beads so the model is not too cramped. This represents the sugar-phosphate backbone.
  • Take the other color of pipe cleaner and cut it into 1.5 inch sections. These are the rungs of the DNA ladder.
  • The other four colors of pony beads represent the nitrogenous bases. On each of the rungs, string a pair of beads, A pairing with T or C pairing with G.
  • Twist the ends of the rungs around the pipe cleaner backbone, directly above and touching the beads representing deoxyribose.
  • Give the entire model a half-twist to form the double helix.

Candy Model

Materials:

  • Black and red licorice
  • Four colors of marshmallows or gum drops
  • Toothpicks
  • Lengths of string
  • Scissors

Instructions:

  • Cut the black and red licorice into 1 inch segments. String the licorice, alternating red and black to form the sugar-phosphate backbone. Tie off the ends of the string to keep the licorice in place. Repeat the process to form the second side of the DNA model.
  • The colored marshmallows or gum drops represent the nitrogenous bases. Create the rungs of the DNA ladder by connecting pairs of marshmallows or gum drops with a toothpick, matching A and T or C and G.
  • Connect the rungs to the sugar licorice of the sugar-phosphate backbone using toothpicks. Give the model a half-twist to represent the double helix.

Styrofoam Balls and Popsicle Sticks Model

Materials:

  • Two sizes of Styrofoam balls
  • Popsicle sticks
  • Toothpicks
  • Four colors of markers

Instructions:

  • Connect a chain of Styrofoam balls using the toothpicks. Alternate the larger ball (which represents deoxyribose) with the smaller ball (which represents the phosphate group) to create the sugar-phosphate backbone. Repeat this process to form the other side of the DNA model.
  • The Popsicle sticks represents the rungs of the DNA ladder. Use markers to color-code each Popsicle stick with a pair of nitrogenous bases, A pairing with T and C pairing with G.
  • Insert one Popsicle stick into each of the sugars on the sugar-phosphate backbone. Attach the other strand of sugar and phosphate. Give the model a half-twist to create the double-helix structure.

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