K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

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Learning outcomes

This activity will help students understand the role of DNA, mRNA, tRNA, and amino acids in protein synthesis. This activity will also introduce the concept of mutations.

Teacher planning

Time required for lesson

30 minutes


  • twenty DNA template cards
  • sixty-four anti-codon cards

These codon cards should be made by the teacher and can be used indefinitely once made.

  • paper to write down the mRNA strand and the tRNA molecules and the sentence
  • pen/pencil
  • keys for sentences, the tRNA anti-codon word cards, and the DNA fragments


Students should have a basic idea of protein synthesis.


Procedures for the Teacher:

  1. Make up all the DNA template cards and the anti-codon word cards.
  2. Hang up the Anti-codon word cards, so the anti-codons are showing.
  3. Show the student the cards and tell them what they are.
  4. Tell the students that your desk is the nucleus and the DNA templates cannot leave the area.
  5. A student is to pick up a DNA template card, write down the DNA template card number, and transcribe it into mRNA.
  6. With the mRNA sequence, s/he will go back to the group’s desk and the ribosomal student will write out the tRNA anti-codon sequence.
  7. The tRNA student will search out the correct anti-codon card and flip the card over revealing the word and then write down the word.
  8. After completing the sentence, a student in the group will tell you his/her group sentence. If not correct, have the group go over the same DNA template. If correct, have the students pick another card.

Note: Students may work together or in pairs (it is better to assign one student to be the mRNA, another student will write down the anti-codon and the third student will search out the proper words).

Every sentence must have a start and a stop.


This activity is aimed at helping students understand protein synthesis with words.

  1. The teacher’s desk will be the nucleus.
  2. The nucleus will have DNA strands, the mRNA molecule (a student) will get a copy of a DNA template and must transcribe the molecule at the teacher’s desk (the DNA never leaves the nucleus).
  3. The student will now go to his/her desk (the ribosome) and find out what tRNA molecules will match up with the mRNA strand.
  4. The tRNA anti-codons will be hanging up around the class.
  5. The student must find the correct anti-codon, flip up the card and find the word under the card (the amino acid).
  6. This will continue until the sentence is complete.

If students incorrectly transcribe the DNA strand or the mRNA strand, then a mutation will occur and the sentence will not make any sense.

Note: Every DNA sequence begins with an initiator codon (ATG) which must be present in order for the sentence to make sense, and each sequence ends with a stop codon (TAG) which also must be present.


Teachers will correct the sentences that the students prepare.

Supplemental information

The lesson comes with a set of keys for sentences to be used, DNA codes for those sentences and DNA codes for individual words.


I usually have my student complete at least five sentences per group. This activity should take no more than thirty minutes.

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Science (2010)
      • Biology

        • Bio.3.1 Explain how traits are determined by the structure and function of DNA. Bio.3.1.1 Explain the double-stranded, complementary nature of DNA as related to its function in the cell. Bio.3.1.2 Explain how DNA and RNA code for proteins and determine traits....
        • Bio.4.1 Understand how biological molecules are essential to the survival of living organisms Bio.4.1.1 Compare the structures and functions of the major biological molecules (carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids) as related to the survival of...

North Carolina curriculum alignment

Science (2005)

Grade 9–12 — AP Biology

  • Goal 4: The learner will develop an understanding of the basis of heredity and the role of molecular genetics.
    • Objective 4.04: Compare and contrast the structure and function of RNA and DNA.
      • Investigate replication and the complimentary nature of DNA.
      • Examine transcription.
      • Examine translation.
      • Explore the role of amino acids.
      • Analyze energy requirements.
      • Compare structure as it relates to function.
      • Analyze genomes in prokaryotes and eukaryotes.

Grade 9–12 — Biology

  • Goal 3: The learner will develop an understanding of the continuity of life and the changes of organisms over time.
    • Objective 3.01: Analyze the molecular basis of heredity including:
      • DNA replication.
      • Protein synthesis (transcription, translation).
      • Gene regulation.