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Cracking the Code of Life

Classroom Activities

Case Studies

To help students understand the ethical, legal, and social issues behind the Human Genome Project.

Materials for each group
  • copy of "Case Studies" student handout (PDF or HTML)
  1. Organize students into groups and distribute the "Case Studies" student handout to each group.

  2. Assign Case Studies to various groups and have students work in their groups to answer the questions associated with each case study.

  3. Once students are done have them report their work to the class and have a class discussion about each of the issues.

Activity Answer

Ethical issues deal with what is moral or right. Legal issues address laws or regulations that may be set up to protect society members. And social issues look at how society and its individuals will be affected by certain decisions.

There are no right or wrong answers when societal issues are debated, but rather many different opinions about what is best ethically, legally, and socially. Talking about genetics can be emotional for students. Be sensitive to students' answers. Be sure to consider all points of view.

Links and Books


Baker, Catherine. Your Genes, Your Choices: Exploring the Issues Raised by Genetic Research. Washington, D.C.: AAAS, 1999.
Describes the Human Genome Project, the science behind it, and the ethical, legal, and social issues raised by the project.

Marshall, Elizabeth L. The Human Genome Project : Cracking the Code Within Us. Minneapolis, MN: Econo-Clad Books, 1999.
Explores the process and technology used in sequencing a portion of the human genome. A chance to see the process of science through the eyes of the scientist. The author connects the discoveries in the human genome with the ethical implications they pose for society.

Reilly, Philip R. Abraham Lincoln's DNA and Other Adventures in Genetics. Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, August 2000.
Offers wide-ranging tales of crime, history, illness, and ethics to illustrate principles and issues of human genetics.

Sayre, Anne. Rosalind Franklin and DNA. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., July 2000.
Offers a true life account of Franklin's work in elucidating the structure of DNA and explores the difficulties often faced by women in science. Franklin's research was central to the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of DNA, and Watson and Crick's discovery relied heavily on her pivotal X-ray crystallography data.

Watson, James D. The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Chronicles the original story behind the race to discover the structure of DNA as seen through the eyes of James Watson.


Crick, Francis, and James Watson. "A Structure of Deoxyribonucleic Acid." Nature. Volume 171. 1953, Pages 737-738.
The seminal paper on the discovery of the structure of DNA.

"Outlook 2000: Inventing the Future." U.S. News & World Report, January 3, 2000.
Special double issue includes different articles about the Human Genome Project, which explain how the secrets of DNA may help cure illnesses and arrest aging, as well as outline the benefits and perils of genetic testing.

Web Sites

NOVA Online—Cracking the Code of Life
Provides program-related articles, interviews, interactive activities, resources, and more.

Genes and Disease
Shows what diseases have been mapped on which chromosomes. The Map Viewer presents a graphical view of the available human genome sequence data as well as cytogenetics, genetic, physical, and radiation hybrid maps.

The Human Genome Project
Provides background information on the Human Genome Project from the National Human Genome Research Institute. Several links provide more detailed resources describing the history and goals of the Human Genome Project.

Genetics Resources
Offers list of links with descriptions to more specific subject areas in the topic of genetics and medicine.


The "See Your DNA" and "Mystery Message" activities and the "Case Studies" activities align with the following National Science Education Standards:

Science Activities: Grades 5-8

Life Science

Science Standard C:
Life Science

Reproduction and Heredity

Molecular Basis of Heredity

Case Studies: Grades 5-8

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

Science Standard F:
Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

Science and Technology in Society

Case Studies: Grades 9-12

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

Science Standard F:
Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

Science and Technology in Society

Teacher's Guide
Cracking the Code of Life

Video is not required for this activity