Showing kids why mutants matter at the STEM Expo

| Written by Jessica Moore
Kids looking at 3D proteins and showing off DNA tattoos

Want to see some mutant worms? If you do, you’re like the hundreds—or possibly thousands—of children and their parents who visited the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP) booth at the STEM Expo, held Saturday, March 4 to kick off the San Diego Festival of Science and Engineering.

Those families got to watch live C. elegans—tiny worms used at SBP to study the biology of aging—move under a magnifying glass. By comparing normal worms to mutants that don’t move as well, they learned about how a single change to DNA can have a huge impact on how a whole body works. Scientists from the lab of Malene Hansen, Ph.D., associate professor at SBP, who provided the worms, explained how mutations in the same gene also cause human diseases like Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which involves hyperflexible joints and skin.

They also had the chance to use virtual reality headsets to look at the shapes of proteins—the machines that make things happen inside cells—and how they can change as a result of a mutation. The 3D visualization tool was created by the lab of Adam Godzik, Ph.D., professor and director of the Bioinformatics and Structural Biology Program at SBP. Researchers from Godzik’s group told visitors about how they use similar computer modeling to find new mutations that could be important in cancer.

Kids left the SBP booth with temporary DNA tattoos on their hands (or sometimes their faces), mini lab coats personalized on the spot so they could pretend to be scientists at home and, maybe, a newfound interest in biology, thanks to the enthusiasm of the Institute’s many volunteers.

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