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Apps in Biology Education: 3-D Brain and Gene Screen

David Micklos
DNA Learning Center (DNALC), Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Smartphone Apps

Background

The September 2010 issue of Wired magazine ran the full-page headline, “The Web Is Dead.” The lead article made the point that the World Wide Web (WWW)—navigated by browsers such as Internet Explorer®, Firefox®, Safari®, and Chrome™—now accounts for less than 25% of total Internet traffic. The vast majority of Internet bandwidth is consumed by other types of communication; notably e-mail, virtual private networks (VPNs), voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), music and video sharing, and active gaming.

The article also alluded to the struggle between the “everything-all-the-time” world of Web sites and the “what-you-want-when-you-need-it” world of applications (apps). With young people spending more time and doing more things on devices such as smartphones and tablets, apps offer biology educators a new and virtually untapped opportunity to engage students. In this article, I’ll describe 2 apps developed by the DNALC that can help students understand brain anatomy and genetic inheritance.

3-D Brain

3-D Brain is an interactive atlas of 29 brain structures that are accessed from an index or by search. The device’s touch screen is used to dynamically rotate and zoom the brain in 3 dimensions, and labels can be added for substructures. A detailed entry for each structure describes its function, its relationship to other brain regions, and cognitive disorders caused by injury or disease to it. A case study of a person who sustained damage to the structure nicely illustrates how scientists gain insight into normal and abnormal brain function. Links to research reviews and further information launch students into independent study.

3-D Brain was originally developed as part of Genes to Cognition (G2C) Online, a network-based Internet site on the molecular genetic basis of thinking and disorders of thinking. Its redevelopment as an app illustrates the importance of presenting content through multiple media channels. Within months of its release in fall 2009, 3-D Brain rose to #7 of 7,100 iPhone® education apps and #1 among 250 iPad® education apps.

In 2011, the Web version of 3-D Brain received 80,875 visits, while the app version was downloaded 349,172 times! Nearly 10,000 ratings and over 200 reviews on iTunes® attest to the enthusiasm with which 3-D Brain has been greeted. In addition to being a great study aid, the app has found its way into medical practice: “I use it with clients to help them see where some of their PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] symptoms are coming from” (krwginew, iTunes® Review, 5/6/2010).

3-D Brain

Gene Screen

Gene Screen, released in spring 2011, is a perfect complement to any unit on Mendelian genetics, providing opportunities for interactive classroom activities or homework. The app was specifically developed to build understanding of these key concepts behind population genetic screening:

  1. Recessive genetic disorders result when a child inherits 2 defective copies of a gene—1 from each parent.
  2. Recessive genetic diseases are inherited from healthy parents who each “carry” 1 copy of a defective gene.
  3. Each offspring of 2 carrier parents has the same risk of inheriting a recessive disorder.
  4. Some racial and ethnic groups have high carrier rates, and higher risk, for certain genetic diseases.

Gene Screen animations explain the relationship between cell, chromosome, gene, DNA, and mutation; how the founder effect increases disease risk in different populations; and how genetic screening can identify healthy carriers. Detailed descriptions of symptoms, prevalence, diagnosis, and screening are provided for 28 “common” recessive disorders, while an interactive world map shows regions where each is most prevalent.

The highlight of Gene Screen is an interactive Punnett square, which puts a new slant on this tried-and-true method to show trait or disease inheritance. Students drag parental genotypes into the square. Mating then “deals” parental alleles into each quadrant to generate genotypes of potential offspring. Each click of an “offspring” button activates a roulette-like rotation around the square that randomly settles on 1 of the 4 genotypes.

The allusion to gambling continues with a “slot machine” that compares carrier frequencies for genetic diseases between Ashkenazi Jews and the general population. Wheels spin, then settle on the carrier frequencies for each population, with the Ashkenazi risk equated to gaming odds (being dealt a red ace) or other occurrence (being born a twin).

Gene Screen

Conclusion

Both apps are free. The 3-D Brain app is available for iPhone®, iPod touch®, and iPad® from the Apple® App Store (Education Category) or through iTunes®. The Android™ version is available from the Google Play App Store, and a version for Windows® 7 platforms is available from the Windows® Phone Marketplace. Gene Screen is available for iPhone®, iPod touch®, and iPad® from the Apple® App Store or through iTunes®. 3-D Brain was developed with grants from the Dana Foundation and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Gene Screen was developed with support from the Marcus Foundation, in partnership with the Victor Center for the Prevention of Jewish Genetic Diseases of Albert Einstein Healthcare Network.

These DNALC apps bring to life elements of anatomy, physiology, genetics, and disease risk that are important in middle school, high school, and college-level biology classes. The fact that they have been downloaded in 90 countries attests to their universal appeal. Download them today and see how they might help your students.

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