mtDNA PCR – What does genetics tell us about race and ancestry?

mtDNA PCR Lab Introduction
In this lesson we focus on the unique characteristics of human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and how we can use it to further our understanding of human ancestry. We ask students to consider the difference between someone’s race and their ancestry, and provide them with tools to answer the question: Does your DNA tell you your race, ancestry, or both?
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    In recent years, the ability to sequenceDNA relatively quickly has lead to numerous people learning about their ancestry through companies like 23andme and Ancestry®. Both companies make use of the unique characteristics of mtDNA, which is inherited only through the maternal lineage.

    In the lab portion of this lesson, students will extract DNA from their own cheek cells and amplify a 400 base pair segment of mtDNA by PCR. Students will visualize their results using gel electrophoresis and identify their haplogroup by analyzing their own DNA sequence.This lab provides a opportunity for students to use multiple important biotechnology skills including micropipetting, PCR, and gel electrophoresis.

Lesson Resources
Student Guide – Download and edit student worksheets to be completed during the mtDNA PCR Lab.
Lesson Slides – Articulates with the student guide above and accompanying lesson plans below.
Lesson Plan – Suggested times for pacing, sequence and activities for the lab. Includes vocabulary tool and other lesson resources.
Supplemental Resources – Includes background information, outside articles, videos, and more related to the lab.

Lab Resources
Student Protocol – Students follow these instructions when doing the mtDNA PCR Lab.
Preparing the Classroom for the Lab – How to set up group stations for this lab experience.
Inventory Guide – Reagents and materials checklist for one classroom kit. Includes equipment and classroom needs for the lab.

  • Perform DNA extraction, PCR, and DNA sequence analysis to determine your own mtDNA haplogroup*
  • Describe mtDNA and the features that make it a useful tool for studying ancestry
  • Compare and contrast the concepts of “race” and “ancestry” and construct an explanation for the following question: Does your DNA tell you your race, ancestry, or both?

* Student mtDNA PCR fragments are sequenced off site

Disciplinary Core Ideas:
LS3-A Inheritance of Traits<
“…some segments of DNA are involved in regulatory or structural functions…”
LS3-B Variation of Traits
“…errors do occur [in DNA replication] and result in mutations, which are also a source of genetic variation…and viable mutations are inherited.”
Science and Engineering Practices:
Analyzing and Interpreting Data
Constructing Explanations

  • Students explain the role of genetics in determining someone’s race and ancestry using mtDNA haplotype data from analyzing their own DNA sequences and gathering information from outside sources.

Crosscutting Concepts:
Cause and Effect

  • Students explore the relationship between someone’s DNA and their race and ancestry.

The following concepts or experiences may be helpful for student learning prior to this lesson.

  • Structure and function of DNA
  • Role of mitochondria in the cell
  • Experience with DNA extraction, micropipetting and gel electrophoresis.

Kitty MeimtDNA – What does genetics tell us about race and ancestry?