Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Visit to the Gene Pool

Since it is Spring Break, my Second Life Avatar, Simone decided to take a little trip to the Gene Pool (SLURL, a wonderful Second Life Site created by Dr. M.A. Clark at Texas Wesleyan. Now where else do you expect a genetics person to go on Spring Break? Caution! SLurls don't seem to work correctly at Internet Explorer 7.0. If you have Second Life installed, use secondlife/Immaculate/234/219/22 if the SLurl doesn't work.

The first thing that greeted me was a mock up of the Augustinian Abbey at Brno where Mendel did his work. Outside the Abbey is Mendel's Garden, showing some of the crosses Mendel conducted along with some other basic modes of classical inheritance.

Inside the abbey is a rich environment including representations of artifacts from the abbey. Along the walls are slide shows showing some of Mendel's classic experiments, entertainingly named the Stations of the Cross.

Here is an example of the sort of detail found in the abbey, along with some of the information available to visitors by clicking on objects to get Second Life Note cards on various topics. In the image along with Simone are some of the Second Life navigational and camera aids.

This is a shot showing incomplete dominance. A little explanation is in order here. As Dr. Clark explains these are obviously not peas but were a lot easier to represent!

There's more of course and outside I was intrigued by these bee hives, complete with friendly bees. One thing I did not know is that Mendel did breeding experiments with bees. Since bees are typically haplodiploid-the males are haploid the females diploid-Mendel must have found their genetics very confusing indeed!

Also outside is the Genetics Complex. This deals with molecular genetics and also has a series of interactive experiments to give the student a feel for some of the classic experiments in modern genetics as well as a chance to use advanced bioinformatics tools such as BLAST.

Entering the tower, you are greeted by some DNA basics, such as Watson and Crick, the famous X ray diffraction photograph of Rosalind Franklin that was so critical to Watson and Crick's model building. To the right is the semi-conservative model of DNA replication.

There are five levels to the Genetics complex which can be reached by either an elevator or a teleport system. Both are fun to do.

Here are some of the highlights:

A Drosophila lab where students can play with the tools used to study these flies.

Here students can access BLAST, a well known tool for comparing DNA or proteins for phylogenetic analysis. In fact there is a whole floor devoted to phylogenetics.

A Gallery of chromosomes where students can access information about each chromosome in humans.

And here you can buy a chromosome shirt.

This is the developer of the Gene Pool, Max Chatnoir talking with me about the Gene Pool. Max says the following about her site:

" I teach what is currently the only online science course offered by the
university -- a nonmajors course about the human genome. The challenge in
designing that course was in developing laboratory materials. The course is
now taught with a mix of "wet labs" that use materials from a lab kit
provided to students by the department and online bioinformatics
investigations that take advantage of the public genetics databases. I got
interested in the potential that Second Life offers to set up an online
laboratory environment (not necessarily for the human genome course), in
which students can generate and analyze data sets, and also get some
familiarity with various methods of genetic analysis. The site is evolving
as I learn to manipulate objects and write the scripts that activate them. "

Back outside, there is a cell model that you can walk in and learn about cell structures.

And of course, the Gene Pool itself. Here's a view from under water in the gene pool. Eventually, according to Max, the gene pool will be devoted to population genetics.

All the areas of the Gene Pool are connected by a fun ride which provides a running commentary about each area.

Here's Simone back home with her chromosome shirt.

If you are thinking, as I am about using Second Life as an educational tool, I strongly recommend a visit to the Gene Pool. Max has skillfully blended scripts and links, textures and particles to create an engaging experience for any visitor, not just this genetics geek.

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