In late October 2013, a new portion of the BEACON exhibit opened at the MSU Museum. This hands-on unit, called the Mutation Station, was co-created by BEACONites Julie Fick (MSU Museum) and Emily Weigel (MSU Zoology), and is intended to specifically address what mutations are and how they impact evolution to shape species.
The exhibit activity is divided into 3 parts which address:
1. What mutations are (and are not!)
2. What effects they can have on organisms
3. How they affect evolution and shape species
To start, the mutation activity explains some basic types of mutations. Through a hands-on approach using LEGO pieces (‘DNA’), visitors assemble ‘sequences’ which each reflect a non-mutated and various mutated sequences of DNA. When the LEGO pieces of DNA are added or removed, for example, visitors can easily see that the number of pieces differs and that information has been added or removed. Likewise, when pieces are rearranged, visitors can compare and see that the colors for each of the LEGOs are now in a different order, although the pieces of DNA within the sequence are all still present.
The second part of the activity uses a fictional insect species, Spartybugs, to illustrate what these constructed sequences ‘mean’ genetically — that is, how each of the mutations affect vision in Spartybugs. Here, visitors can see how their mutated Spartybug sees and associate a mutated sequence with, for instance, blurred vision. This portion of the activity points out not only the rarity of mutations, but also targets several misconceptions surrounding how various mutations can affect gene function.
Finally, the evolution portion of the activity asks visitors to pick a Spartybug and determine its fate within different parts of ‘Bugworld’. This habitat has several different regions where different sequences (mutated and not) are favored to different degrees, as noted by a smiley, neutral, or frowny face. This portion of the activity addresses the misconceptions that mutations are always good or bad, and has visitors work through examples where the effect of a mutation (good, bad, or neutral for survival and reproduction) depends on the Spartybug’s current environment.
[Written as a part of my work with the BEACON Buzz]