Understanding the Functions of Proteins and DNA

Type Category
Instructional Materials
Lesson/Lesson Plan
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be "fully aligned," the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



This series of videos, flow charts and discussion probes provides a sequence of learning activities to help students understand that proteins and DNA are not just abstract concepts in biology textbooks. Emphasis is on the concept that DNA and proteins are crucial components of our body that affect the function of human characteristics with which students are familiar. The lesson plan is divided into two portions each with a separate probing questions, videos and flow charts. The probe questions for each section provide sparks to generate student interest and focus.  The first section addresses key concepts relating to proteins, and the second section focuses on key concepts relating DNA to proteins and protein variations.   Two relevant flow charts are included in each section.  In the first portion, students learn about how proteins contribute to the digestion of food and how different versions of a protein can result in a characteristic such as albinism, sickle cell anemia, and hemophilia or alcohol sensitivity. In the second portion, students learn about the relationship between the genetic information in DNA and the different versions of these proteins. The discussion questions, web-based activities, and flow charts for students to complete are appropriate for a high school biology introductory unit on biological molecules or as an introduction to a unit on molecular biology.  Extensive background information and more than a dozen web resource links are provided for teachers. Suggestions of options for teachers to increase the depth of the lesson are included.

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • High School
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

HS-LS1-1 Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the structure of DNA determines the structure of proteins which carry out the essential functions of life through systems of specialized cells.

Clarification Statement: none

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include identification of specific cell or tissue types, whole body systems, specific protein structures and functions, or the biochemistry of protein synthesis.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
There are many different activities, labs, and videos available that focus on connecting the structure of DNA to the structure of proteins. This lesson is structured in a different order by beginning with a video of protein function and a lesson on the importance of proteins to body functioning. Two hands-on activities of how enzymes function elaborate on the direct connections to protein structure. After students have a grasp of protein function and the function of enzymes, the relationship of proteins to specific human disorders and how the structure of DNA determines the structure of these specific proteins involved in each disorder is addressed. Teachers are encouraged to utilize this lesson in the order written and use all diagrams, video clips, flow charts and probe and analysis questions provided as these lessons coherently help students develop proficiency on this targeted performance expectation.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
In the first activity students interpret evidence to test their hypotheses. In designing the second activity students answer specific scientific questions about lactase function. In the second hands-on activity students extract DNA from Archaea and answer questions designed to help them understand the basic structure and functions of DNA and the relationship to the structure of proteins. Teachers need to have all materials and supplies available for the hands-on activities and be ready to assist students with any questions they may have.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
This lesson supports the disciplinary core idea of all cells containing DNA and genes that code for the formation and structure of proteins. The human traits that are part of this lesson are thoroughly explained in terms of the DNA and genes. Several human traits are described including albinism, lactose intolerance, sickle cell anemia, hemophilia and alcohol sensitivity with the connection of proteins and DNA for each trait. The resulting changes in the proteins of people with each of the traits and the cause of each trait are explained. Student understanding of these traits and the connection between DNA and proteins is enhanced by having students complete the hands-on activities and by filling in and analyzing a flow chart for each of the traits.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
This lesson provides students with probing questions for each section: “ What are proteins? Why are proteins important? and Why do some people have albinism, lactose intolerance, sickle cell anemia, hemophilia or alcohol sensitivity and other people don’t?” To answer the questions, students use two online videos: protein function and what is a gene. The hands-on activities include the role of enzymes in saliva and their effect on starch, what is DNA and experiments using the enzyme lactase to address these probing questions. Flow charts and the final lab of DNA extraction also emphasize the components and connections of DNA structure to protein structure and function. Skillful teachers need to emphasize this relationship by asking direct questions of students and have students elaborate on what is learned in their hands-on activities.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This lesson utilizes topics of human traits that students have interest in and does weave together the three dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards provided as the crosscutting concepts, the disciplinary core ideas and the practice are all addressed. If the guiding or probing question were based on a phenomenon that provides a link between the genetic condition and the result in the organism, the alignment to the NGSS would be stronger. For instance, movies and cartoons often show cat owners giving their adult cats milk as a special treat. However when milk is fed to an adult cat, though, often the milk makes the adult cat sick, even though kittens can drink milk. The guiding question could be, “Why is it that adult cats, and many adult humans, cannot properly digest milk?” This would be a guiding question based on a phenomenon. With this guiding question in mind, the students now have a reason to understand the relationships among proteins, DNA, and traits.

  • Instructional Supports: All of the activities, videos and flow charts for students are purposeful and well chosen. The resources for teachers are extensive and well done. Key concepts, learning goals and teaching approaches contribute positively to instructional resources. Many additional resources for added teacher background or for teachers not familiar with the content are provided. The resources include several websites that highlight applicable information or additional student activities that can be used to reinforce or enrich all of the dimensions of this lesson. Utilizing an assessment probe such as “Baby Mice” by Page Keeley could provide a hook to catch students' interest while giving this lesson an added purpose. A probe such as Baby Mice is designed explicitly to help teachers elicit students basic ideas about inheritance and reveal misconceptions students may have relating to DNA and traits. This probe is available at as part of Uncovering Student Ideas in Science:25 More Formative Assessment Probes volume 2 https://www.nsta.org/store/product_detail.aspx?id=10.2505/9780873552738. Formal assessments for teachers to use to evaluate student progress are minimal; teachers will need to develop supportive questions and perhaps more questions to lead students through the flow charts. One flow chart has blanks for students to fill in and if teachers desire, the sources for the flow charts are provided and flow charts with blanks could easily be made from the provided materials. Teachers need to pay special attention to the enumerated key concepts and learning goals while developing their questions to be used throughout the lesson.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Analysis questions are provided in each of the two main hands-on activities but teachers will have to look for those. Those analysis questions are well done and do tie together each of the related activities and main concepts. However, there are no downloadable materials for monitoring student progress or formal assessment. Skillful teachers will need to develop questions for monitoring student progress. Depending on the academic levels of the students, teachers may need to develop checklists or guides for monitoring students’ understanding of concepts.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: This lesson is not technology based but does engage students with technology by watching the identified online videos. The videos are not interactive.