The Double Helix: The Alphabet of the Human Genome

The Double Helix: The Alphabet of the Human Genome
Betty Ford: Science, Medicine, Inventions and tech

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: One to two weeks


In 1953, when Gerry and Betty Ford had been married for five years, something really important in the world changed.  In England, Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of the DNA molecule.  They called it the Double Helix, and said it was the alphabet that would open the book of life to the world.  They weren’t far wrong.  Fifty years later, the “book of life” of human beings was mapped—the result of a major effort called the Human Genome Project.  And it could be done because we understood DNA.


The purpose of the lesson is to enable students to explore the implications of mapping the human genome by researching its history and contemporary status, as well as the scientific, ethical, and social issues raised by the changes that seem to be ahead of us.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; access to print materials.


1.  Begin the lesson by asking students what they know about DNA, the double helix, and/or the human genome project.  Clear up any misunderstandings that appear, and give the class time to explore the websites listed under Background Information below.
2.  Then, divide the class into groups of four, and further divide the groups into teams of two.  Each group should spend two or three class periods exploring the websites listed under Issues, below.  Then, each group should select one issue raised by the information on these websites.  A sample set of issues might be: 

  • Using the genome to test everyone for genetic disease, even if it is not certain to appear
  • Taking samples of DNA from everyone to create a national database
  • Genetic engineering to produce “better” babies
  • Genetic engineering to produce “better” vegetables, fruits, and livestock
  • Stem cell research to cure disease
  • Others, as raised by students

3.  Then, one pair of students in each group should take responsibility for creating an argument in favor of the issue and the other pair should take responsibility for creating an argument against the issue.  Note: more research might be needed at this point. Each group should debate their issue within their group until all arguments are exhausted. Each pair of students within a group should have carefully written down their arguments, and the ways in which they responded to counter-arguments from the other pair.
4.  When the in-group discussion has been completed, and arguments firmed up, the pairs of students in each group should present their discussion to the wider class, leaving time for questions, comments, and criticisms.
5.  When all groups have presented the relative merits of their issue, the class should vote on whether the positive arguments outweigh the negative arguments, thus voting on whether research on the item in question should go forward.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson could be extended by inviting the biology teacher(s) to become involved as expert consultants to the students.  If this lesson is being done in a social studies class, perhaps students in both social studies and biology could work on the issues together.

Sources & Resources:


Background Information

The Double Helix 
Rosalind Franklin and the Double Helix 
The Human Genome 


The Human Genome Project Maps Human Life 
The Human Genome is Sequenced – Now What? 
The Human Genome Project: A Scientific and Ethical Overview 
Stem Cell Information 

WGBH Lectures on the Double Helix and Human Genome -- videos

Double Helix: Script for Life 

The Human Genome and Beyond 

How Genomes and Other Forces Are Changing Your Life 
This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.