Last month, a collaborative public engagement activity involving MELGEN and the Wellcome Sanger Institute was held as a part of Fun lab, The big weekend in Cambridge, UK. We had a lot of fun interacting with children, teenagers, and adults with widely varying scientific knowledge. We demonstrated through interactive activities what our DNA comprises of, how exposure to sunlight and UV radiation can damage our DNA and how we can use easy measures to protect ourselves.
The public engagement venture comprised of two activities. First, we designed a short exercise with the goal of showing what can happen to our DNA with sun damage. We took a frequently mutated melanoma gene, BRAF, and printed a small section of its DNA sequence on a sheet of paper. We then used a UV pen to alter some bases to illustrate mutations. Finally, using UV light, we could reveal these mutations in this sequence and explain how DNA bases could be mutated through sun exposure, and how this links to skin cancer development, particularly melanoma.
The second exercise proved to be extremely popular! Here, we used coloured beads representing the 4 bases in our DNA. We also had special, transparent UV beads which changed colour on exposure to UV radiation. We let the members of the public, which mostly comprised of children, to create a string of a DNA sequence. They had the option of choosing between segments of DNA selected from the melanoma genes BRAF, NRAS or TERT.
Once they completed the first part, we then introduced the concept of DNA base pairing by explaining to them how A always pairs with T, and C always pairs with G. Their challenge was then to match a second complementary DNA sequence string based on the first string that they had made. These two strings were eventually tied together to make a DNA base-pair bracelet, which they got to take away with them!
In order to reintroduce the idea of UV radiation and mutations, we also introduced a few “mutations” into each sequence which were represented using the previously mentioned UV beads. We had pre-coated half of the UV beads with sunscreen and the other half were left without. The participants then had to go out into the sun to see if there was any change in the colour of the UV beads and if there was any difference between the beads coated with sunscreen and the ones without sunscreen. It was amazing to see the excitement in everyone’s eyes when they took the bracelet out in the sun and could see the drastic colour change in the beads not coated in sun screen.
We followed up this exercise by explaining to them how sunscreen protected the UV beads from changing colour represented sunscreen protecting our skin from mutations. The activity was then concluded by emphasising the importance of applying sun screen to protect ourselves and giving away stickers to children who had followed through with the exercise.
We had a blast, and an overwhelmingly positive response from everyone visiting us during the day. The Fun lab tent was visited by 1900 people throughout the day, and over 300 DNA UV bracelets were made!
Thanks to everyone who came, Steve Scott and the public engagement team at Sanger who helped us design and fund the activities. We would also like to thank fellow MELGEN student Adriana Sanna, and colleagues from David Adams’ team at the Wellcome Sanger Institute: Jen Chan and Victoria Harle, who joined us for the day and helped make this a successful event!
– Written by Sofia Chen, ESR07 and Aravind Sankar, ESR01
Photos by Mark Danson and Steve Scott (Wellcome Sanger Institute)