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Why bioinformatics in the classroom?

The recent flood of data from genome sequences and functional genomics had given rise to a new field, bioinformatics, which combines elements of biology and computer science1. Bioinformatics is nowadays an inherent part of research in molecular biology. Gelbart and Yarden2 write that a bioinformatics learning environment promotes the construction of new knowledge structures of the genetics domain and therefore influences students’ acquisition of a deeper, multidimensional understanding of the domain.

We think that databases and software used in bioinformatics can contribute to several challenges in biology education in the Netherlands:

1. Students understanding of abstract concepts like protein, genome and evolutionary relationship

Proteins and genes cannot be observed by the human eye. Expensive equipment is needed to visualize these molecules. And even then it remains to be seen whether students would gain a better understanding of the processes and functions. Cheaper and probably more helpful is a computer-based approach. Using 3D-software, you will be able to see a certain protein from all different angles. You can zoom in, turn the protein around and select specific amino acids. A protein structure can be downloaded from the Protein Data Bank. Other databases make it possible to show the structure of genes in a scientific way. You can simply zoom in on a gene and distinguish the exons, introns and regulating domains. You can even make simplistic phylogenetic trees or look directly at proteins that are related to your protein of interest.

We think that when students can work with these tools, abstract genomic concepts become more tangible and therefore easier to understand.

2. The coherence between DNA, protein and traits, and other themes in biology

Schoolbooks often discuss the relation between DNA, genes and heredity in the context of visible traits like the colour of the eyes or hair. The fact that humans have 99,9% of (mostly non-visible) heritable characteristics in common is hardly ever taught to students. One way of giving attention to the relationships between DNA and traits outside the chapter on heredity is by making a link to proteins, which are discussed as part of other themes within the biology curriculum. For example: when discussing digestion, you can simply look up on what chromosome the gene for amylase is and/or show the 3D-structure of amylase. These links can be packaged as small assignments (max. ten minutes) directly connected to proteins in the biology curriculum3.

We think that making more links from different chapters throughout the biology curriculum to genes and proteins helps students' understanding of the genome.

3. Insight in current research methods

Almost every discipline in life science employs bioinformatics. Bachelor and university programmes in life sciences also use bioinformatics. The Netherlands even has a complete bachelor programme in bioinformatics.

We think that high school education that aims to provide insight in current research methods, cannot ignore bioinformatics.