Lists of the ‘characteristics of life’ are a common element in introductory biology early lectures. Generally, these focus on movement, energy conversion, organization, etc.–all legitimate concepts. But the role of self-assembly in biology must not be underestimated; it’s a key feature of the flow of information in the Central Dogma (through the specific partnering of bases), folding of proteins from linear strings of amino acids (readily specified by linear structure of nucleic acids) gives rise to the functioning machines at the heart of almost all cellular work and action, and even membranes, while not members of the Central Dogma club, have function that relies critically on aspects of self-assembly. Without these properties, life would not only be impossible–they’re prerequisites for life to evolve from non-life.
Students store Introductory Biology topics in ‘bubbles’, often unrelated to each other or the world the students inhabit. One challenging area where this happens a lot is mutation–how mutations happen, why mutations have consequences, and even the idea that mutations happen to ‘us.’ One of my favorite articles from the popular press had a title similar to “Blue eyes arose through human ‘mutation’ thousands of years ago”, with the word mutation offset in quotes–to indicate blue eye changes aren’t real mutations? In trying to make the concept more concrete and interesting to students, I’ve accumulated a series of human phenotypes (and primary literature sources) that amuse students while also driving key concepts home. The role of mutation in generating diversity and driving evolution is quietly but steadily made as well.
Teaching the world of molecules to relative newcomers is challenging because it’s an invisible world with ‘rules’ that don’t always have a 1-to-1 correspondence with the macroscopic world (looking at you, hydrophobicity). A second issue is that while the molecules themselves are concrete things, we discuss them using their labels–A or adenine or glucose or ‘protein’. Too often, students end up with vague notions (or none at all) about these entities. Given that everything in the cell is made of and run by molecules, student success in thinking and understanding is critically dependent on what they’re picturing as molecules. I think care in and improvements of molecule display can go a long way towards making their lives easier and their understandings richer.