Learning Resource Type

Learning Activity

The Secret Code of Life

Subject Area



9, 10, 11, 12


This interactive website allows students to examine the process of how each protein is coded for in the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) which hold the “The Secret Code of Life”. Students are able to manipulate models to explore transcription to demonstrate how complementary nucleotides bind to ensure a correct copy. Next, students are able to manipulate and observe, step by step, the process of translation. Students are then able to observe the folding of proteins and experiment with a protein model simulation. Lastly, students are able to apply mutations to a simulated protein sequence to observe what happens to the protein.

This activity was created as a result of the GAP Resource Summit.

    Science (2015) Grade(s): 09-12 - Biology


    Formulate an evidence-based explanation regarding how the composition of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) determines the structural organization of proteins.

    Unpacked Content



    • Nitrogenous bases
    • Deoxyribose
    • Phosphates
    • Hydrogen bonding
    • Nucleotides
    • Semi-conservative replication
    • Central Dogma
    • Transcription
    • Various types of RNA, including those involved in protein synthesis (mRNA, tRNA & rRNA) and those associated with gene regulation (e.g., IncRNA, miRNA, siRNA) and post-transcriptional modification (snRNA)
    • RNA polymerase
    • Introns
    • Exons
    • Codon
    • Translation
    • Anticodon
    • Deletion
    • Insertion
    • Substitution
    • Variant
    • DNA sequencing
    • PCR
    • Gel electrophoresis
    • Big Science Projects conducted over last 30 years: Human Genome Project, The International Hap Map, ENCODE, Cancer Genome Atlas, 1000 Genomes project, ClinVar and ClinGen, and the Exome Aggregation
    • Consortium.
    • Deletion
    • Insertion
    • Translocation
    • Substitution
    • Inversion
    • Frameshift mutations
    • Point mutations


    Students know:
    • All living things have DNA How the 5' and 3' orientation of DNA nucleotides results in the antiparallel nature of DNA.
    • The complementary nature of nitrogenous bases.
    • How hydrogen bonding holds complementary bases together across two DNA strands.
    • The basic mechanism of reading and expressing genes is from DNA to RNA to Protein (The Central Dogma of Biology).
    • The first step of the Central dogma is a process called transcription, which synthesizes mRNA from DNA.
    • The process where the mRNA connects to a ribosome, the code is read and then translated into a protein is called translation.
    • To become a functional protein, a translated chain of amino acids must be folded into a specific three-dimensional shape.
    • Historically important experiments that led to the development of the structure of DNA, including Mieshcer, Chargraff, Rosalind Franklin, Watson/Crick, etc.
    • DNA changes can be linked to observable traits in the natural world, such as diseases.
    • Common laboratory techniques are used to obtain evidence that supports the premise that DNA changes may affect proteins and in turn the appearance of traits.
    • Types of errors that can occur during replication and the impact these errors have on protein production and/or function.


    Students are able to:
    • Build from scratch or work with previously constructed models of DNA to identify the key structural components of the molecule.
    • Obtain and communicate information (possibly through a conceptual model) describing how information encoded in DNA leaves the nucleus.
    • Obtain and expand explanation to include how the information transcribed from DNA to RNA determines the amino acid sequence of proteins.
    • Identify and describe the function of molecules required for replication and differentiate between replication on the leading and lagging DNA strands.
    • Group mRNA into codons and identify the amino acid associated with each codon. Create and manipulate polypeptide models to demonstrate protein folding.
    • Use a variety of resources (web-based timelines, original publications, documentaries, and interviews), explain how historically important experiments helped scientists determine the molecular structure of DNA, and develop the concept of the Central Dogma of Biology.
    • Analyze a variety of diagnostic techniques that identify genetic variation in a clinical setting.
    • Relate protein structure to enzyme function and discuss the causes and impacts of protein denaturation on both enzymes and structural proteins.
    • Identify the impact of DNA changes on the structure and/or function of the resulting amino acid sequences.
    • Predict the impact of errors during DNA replication in terms of protein production and/or function.
    • Classify types of DNA changes (deletions, insertions, and substitutions).
    • Use models to explain how deletions, insertions, translocation, substitution, inversion, frameshift, and point mutations occur during the process of DNA replication.


    Students understand that:
    • The traits of living things are ultimately determined by inherited sequences of DNA.
    • The end product of transcription is always RNA, but the process produces many different types of RNA with varying functions.
    • DNA instructions are replicated and passed from parent to offspring, segregating traits across generations in a mathematically predictable manner.
    • A protein is a linear sequence of amino acids that spontaneously folds following rules of chemistry and physics.
    • A series of historically important experiments let to the current understanding of the structure of DNA and the Central Dogma of Biology.
    • Errors that occur during DNA replication can affect protein production and/or function. Important projects over the past 30 years have changed the definition of a "gene" and increased the ability to assess the impact of DNA variation in a trait or disease.
    • Genetic change can lead to altered protein function and the appearance of a different trait or disease.

    Scientific and Engineering Practices

    Engaging in Argument from Evidence; Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

    Crosscutting Concepts



    Learning Objectives

    Learning Objectives

    • Describe the process of how DNA determines the structure of proteins.
    • Explain the process of transcription.
    • Identify the four types of nucleotides: adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine (C).
    • Describe how it takes three nucleotides (called a triplet) to code for each amino acid of a protein. 
    • Explain the process of translation.
    • Explain how proteins fold.
    • Describe how mutations in the DNA affect the formation of the protein.

    Activity Details

    1. Beginning with the first page of the activity, students will read the article, "Proteins in the Cell" and answer the question, how does the cell make proteins from the information in the DNA?

    2. Click the arrow at the top of the page to go to next page. Students will read the article on transcription. Working individually or with a partner, they will then use the interactive simulation of transcription to explore how a mRNA copy is made of the DNA. After practicing with the simulation, they will answer questions #1 and #2 at the bottom of the page.

    3. Click the arrow at the top of the page to go to next page. Students will read the article on translation. They will then explore the process of translation by clicking the Translate or Translate step by step button to start translation. After exploring the interactive simulation, they will answer questions #3 and #4 at the bottom of the page.

    4. Click the arrow at the top of the page to go to next page. Students will read the article on protein folding. They will then use the simulation to experiment with the various types of protein in the models. After exploring the interactive simulation, they will answer questions #5 at the bottom of the page.

     5. Click the arrow at the top of the page to go to next page. Students will read the article on mutation. They will then use the simulation to click on a DNA nucleotide to mutate it. Students can substitute a different nucleotide, insert a new nucleotide or delete a nucleotide. After exploring the interactive simulation, they will answer questions #6 and #7 at the bottom of the page.

    6. Students will then click on "Generate Report" at the bottom of page 5, and they can choose to print the report or email it to the teacher for evaluation and assessment.

    Assessment Strategies

    Assessment Strategies

    Students will answer the questions from each page then generate the answers for the teacher to assess.

    Students can print the Response Summary or share the results with the teacher via email. 

    Variation Tips

    Students can use the DNA to Protein activity to practice transcription and translation.


    Background and Preparation

    Background / Preparation

    Each student should have access to a computer or device to take the quiz.

    Students can email the results from the activity so the teacher should share their email address with the students.

    Each student can also print the results and turn them in to the teacher.

    Digital Tools / Resources