Check Out MSU Museum’s Mutation Station

Written by: Emily Weigel

Primary Source: Choice Words with Choosy_Female

In late October 2013, a new portion of the BEACON exhibit opened at the MSU Museum. This hands-on unit, called the Mutation Station, was co-created by BEACONites Julie Fick (MSU Museum) and Emily Weigel (MSU Zoology), and is intended to specifically address what  mutations are and how they impact evolution to shape species.

The exhibit activity is divided into 3 parts which address:
1. What mutations are (and are not!)
2. What effects they can have on organisms
3. How they affect evolution and shape species

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To start, the mutation activity explains some basic types of mutations. Through a hands-on  approach using LEGO pieces (‘DNA’), visitors assemble ‘sequences’ which each reflect a non-mutated and various mutated sequences of DNA. When the LEGO pieces of DNA are added or removed, for example, visitors can easily see that the number of pieces differs and that information has been added or removed. Likewise, when pieces are rearranged, visitors can compare and see that the colors for each of the LEGOs are now in a different order, although the pieces of DNA within the sequence are all still present.
The second part of the activity uses a fictional insect species, Spartybugs, to illustrate what these constructed sequences ‘mean’ genetically — that is, how each of the mutations affect vision in Spartybugs. Here, visitors can see how their mutated Spartybug sees and associate a mutated sequence with, for instance, blurred vision. This portion of the activity points out not only the rarity of mutations, but also targets several misconceptions surrounding how various mutations can affect gene function.

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Finally, the evolution portion of the activity asks visitors to pick a Spartybug and determine its fate within different parts of ‘Bugworld’. This habitat has several different regions where different sequences (mutated and not) are favored to different degrees, as noted by a smiley, neutral, or frowny face. This portion of the activity addresses the misconceptions that mutations are always good or bad, and has visitors work through examples where the effect of a mutation (good, bad, or neutral for survival and reproduction) depends on the Spartybug’s current environment.

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We hope this simple activity will get visitors — even you! — to think about the connections between genes, the environment, and evolution. So go check it out!

[Written as a part of  my work with the BEACON Buzz]

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Emily Weigel
Emily Weigel (@Choosy_Female) is Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Zoology and in the Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Behavior Program at Michigan State University. Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, she earned her Bachelor’s degree in Biology with a focus on interdisciplinary research from the Georgia Institute of Technology. At MSU, Weigel conducts research in the lab of Dr. Jenny Boughman and is affiliated with the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action. Her dissertation research focuses on how female choice and investment interact with male mating strategies. Additionally, Weigel’s education research asks how and why a background in genetics affects student performance in evolutionary biology. When not researching, Weigel enjoys playing soccer, surfing Netflix, and promoting STEM in the community.
Emily Weigel

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