Build Your Own Gene

Grant program: Teaching and Learning Development Grant (TLDG)

Grant recipient: Jim Mattsson, Department of Biological Sciences

Project team: Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Department of Biological Sciences, Tiffany Carlaw, Sandy Rey
and Dua’a Riyal, research assistants

Timeframe: June 2014 to April 2015

Funding: $5,000

Course addressed: BISC 357 – Gene Cloning

Final report: View Jim Mattsson's project final report (PDF)

Description: An understanding of a gene’s organization and how it can be analyzed is fundamental knowledge not only for a career in molecular biosciences and medicine, but also for science literacy. It is important to remove the abstractness of a gene and replace it with a mechanistic understanding of gene function.

I have taught BISC 357 Gene Cloning for the past ten years.  Despite the course’s success, I feel that many students have not understood the basic organization of genes and the extent to which different parts of a gene can be tested functionally by gene cloning. The laboratory component currently provides students with ways of cloning individual DNA fragments, but stops short of actually applying gene cloning techniques to analyze gene function.

Recent advances in gene cloning technology have made it possible to test the function of a gene component by fusing it to fragments with known functions, providing a read-out in the form of gene expression in recombinant cells harbouring the novel construct. The student groups will be presented with a problem, be provided with a toolbox, asked to generate a novel DNA construct to address a problem, first on paper, then in the lab, followed by analysis of cells harbouring the construct. Before the new lab module can be written and the course executed, testing and optimization of new cloning technology in the teaching laboratory, and evaluation of the type of questions that can be tested in the lab will be performed.

The laboratory exercise will thus be extended to hands-on problem solving of gene function and identification of gene components. Students will set up an experiment to answer a question, and carry it out in practice, improving analytical and technical skills, as well as gaining a better understanding of gene organization and analysis.

Questions addressed:

  • Does student understanding of gene organization and function increase after the inquiry-based exercise?
  • Do student evaluations of the course improve?
  • Does this inquiry-based exercise compare favourably to the previous methods-based exercises?
  • Does student participation in lecture increase compared to previous course offerings?
  • Do we see a larger enrolment in follow-up courses?

Knowlege sharing: Results will be presented within the Department of Biological Sciences, to faculty from other departments, and as a seminar in the centre for cell biology development and disease C2D2. Successful results will be integrated into the courses Plant Physiology and Applied Genomics, and the planned undergraduate Cell Biology laboratory course.  To see the professional networking opportunities for students provided by this type of exercise, please visit (; where college and university teams compete in generating novel genes.