Edible DNA: A Fun Twist to Science Your Kids Can Swallow
Do they like to eat?
How about creating a fun activity that shows your kids why we are all different yet very much the same.
The project is creating edible DNA.
In this article, I’ll help you explain the molecule of life that is DNA in kid-friendly terms, show you how you and your family can discover some of your unique genetic traits and teach you to make a delicious model of the DNA strand that your kids will love.
Why Should We Learn About DNA?
Has your daughter ever wondered why she can roll her tongue but her best friend can’t, no matter how hard she tries?
Or why you’re left-handed but everyone else in your family is right-handed?
Maybe your son wishes his curly hair was straight like his sister’s?
What causes all these differences, even between siblings who have the same parents?
The answer lies in our DNA, a special kind of molecule that holds the code—the instructions—for every cell in our bodies.
We all like to remind our children that they are unique and special: “There is only one You,” we tell them. “There can never be another You!” DNA is what makes this true. DNA determines the characteristics that make each of us different from anyone else in the world. What a sweet concept.
It’s also a very important scientific concept, which may open your children’s eyes—whether they’re blue, brown, hazel or green—to the discovery of their own special traits such as blonde hair or large feet or brown skin.
Learning about DNA in the sweet, kid-friendly activity you’ll find below is a great way to teach kids some science in a fun way and encourage them to celebrate our differences.
It’s also a tasty sculpture you can eat for dessert.
Our DNA adventure started when my son Charlie asked why his hair is curly while his sister Ella has straight hair.
His question prompted a conversation about our DNA and what makes us unique. Have you had a conversation like this with your kids?
We did a little research to answer Charlie’s question. We tested some of the different traits that DNA determines. And I created a fun crafting project that’s a great way to show the amazing work that DNA does in our bodies every day.
My young crafting mates loved the idea, especially after they spied the marshmallows! Your family will enjoy it, too.
So gather up these few supplies and let’s get started.
Read on to see how you can explore DNA and genetics in a fun way with your family.
#1: Learn DNA Science in Simple Terms
I’m not a scientist and you’re probably not one either, but there are plenty of scientists online who can explain the science of DNA and genetics in simple, kid-friendly (and parent-friendly) terms.
Here’s the gist of what I learned. It should be enough to give your kids a DNA overview:
There are lots of other jobs, too. Did you know there are over 200 cell types in the body? That’s 200 different jobs!
How much is a trillion?
Our bodies have up to a hundred trillion cells. This video will help you see what just one trillion looks like.
Try to imagine what a trillion cells would look like. How big that would be? If each cell in your hand was the size of a grain of sand your hand would be the size of a bus! Now multiply that by 100.
Wow! The cells in your body must be tiny!
How does each of your hundred trillion cells know what to do; which of the 200 types to become? Who or what tells the cells to become black curly hair or green eyes or a beating heart?
Cells are the building blocks of life and they are told what to do by your DNA.
Here’s a DNA video that explains DNA in kid-friendly (and parent-friendly) language.
The DNA molecule holds all of the codes or instructions that tell your cells what to become and what to do. These are called genes.
This molecule comes in a special shape called a double helix, which we’ll talk about later.
#2: Find Your DNA Buddies
First, find someone to compare your DNA to. You too, parents! This is especially fun for people in the same family, but you can choose anybody.
Are resemblances strong in your family? Do you look like your parents? Do you and your siblings look like each other?
Half of your DNA comes from your mother and half comes from your father. No one knows which half of the genetic codes you’ll get from which parent or how they’re going to combine, so it’s fun to compare your traits to your parents’ and siblings’ to find similarities and differences.
My two children share some similar traits, such as blonde hair and brown eyes but they also have some of their own, such as Charlie’s waves and Ella’s straight hair. It all stems from DNA. What will you find in your family?
You may have family members who look nothing like each other. How is that possible?
Your 100 trillion cells don’t use all of the instructions contained in your DNA. Some genes are stored away and passed down without appearing for generations. Sometimes they just skip one.
Charlie loved to learn that his hair is like his granddad’s hair was when he was a little boy. Charlie wanted to know if he would look like Santa when he was older too. Given that he’s only 8, we’ll have to wait and see!
Everyone in my family was genuinely interested to learn what makes them unique and it was great to talk about what was passed down through the generations. Talk with your kids about traits passed through your family (thanks to DNA).
Ok, got your DNA buddies? It’s time for the fun!
#3: Observe Your Traits—Celebrate Your Differences
A great way to get the ball rolling is to think about your observable traits. There are several traits determined by genetics—the codes carried on your DNA—that are simple to see or test.
Make a list. Charlie and Ella wrote down the traits they recognized. Their list included things like hair and eye color and which hand you write with. Did you get all the traits in this box?
Now, look at your DNA buddy and help each other test for the traits on the list. See if you can do it without giggling.
If you’re not sure what these mean, check this link for photos and descriptions of common traits determined by genetics.
It’s fun to compare results and look for family traits passed down through generations.
Here’s what my family found: Charlie has thick curly hair, Ella’s is straight and fine. I am left-handed, but the kids are right-handed. I am very tall, and the children are shaping up to be tall as well. Their father Giles has red hair and has lots of freckles, Ella has 7, and Charlie doesn’t have any.
What did your family discover? How are you similar and how are you different? Celebrate them both!
Some genetic codes are very rare. Other times (also very rarely), a gene will mutate, which means it changes so that it acts in an unexpected way.
We have a friend with a rare genetic trait called a cloverleaf tongue. We all think it’s pretty cool!
If you have older children who want to learn more, the options to extend this project are as vast as DNA itself (well, that may be an exaggeration). You can learn more about dominant and recessive traits, cloning, genetic engineering, the use of genetic research in medicine and much more. DNA is simple and endlessly complicated at the same time.
#4: Build A Double Helix (and Eat It, Too!)
If you used the PTC tasting strips, you may (or may not) have a bitter taste in your mouth, so let’s move on to the tasty part of our DNA adventure.
The DNA molecule looks like a twisted ladder. This shape is called a double helix.
The sides of the DNA ladder (which you’ll make with licorice) are called the backbone. The steps of the ladder (you’ll use marshmallows) are made of four small chemicals called bases (A, T, G and C).
Note: To be more accurate, you could use four different-colored candies instead of marshmallows to represent the four bases.
The bases are like a four-letter alphabet that combines in many different ways to form “sentences.” Those long sentences are the genetic codes that instruct our cells what to do or become.
It took scientists over 10 years and some very powerful computers to “read” all of the possible genetic “sentences” in a human body. There are more than 3 billion ways these four letters combine to make each of us unique.
Ready to make a tasty model of a double helix?
Step 1: Push 4 mini marshmallows onto 8 toothpicks. (We used larger marshmallows so only 2 would fit). These are the bases of your DNA.
Step 2: Push 4 of the toothpick “bases” into a piece of licorice. Keep to the lower half of the licorice. Add another piece on the other sides of the toothpicks. The licorice forms your DNA “backbone.”
Does your model look like a ladder with rungs only halfway up?
Step 3: Cross the licorice above the 4 toothpicks. Then attach the other 4 toothpicks to the upper half.
You now have a complete model of the twisted double helix structure of DNA. It should look like a ladder that is twisted halfway up.
Note to parents: When working with children and candy you may find yourself running out of materials before your model is complete. Make sure they don’t eat the candy before the project is finished!
Some Final Thoughts…
My family had a lot of fun learning about DNA and testing our own genetic traits. I hope yours did, too. I’m no scientist, but I think that creating personal connections to the information made learning a pretty complex scientific subject really interesting for Charlie and Ella. I learned a bit too!
This could be a great activity to do alone with your kids or when they’re having friends over. After this, mine want to share their new trick with everyone. They’re on a mission to see who can roll their tongue.
What do you think? Did you have fun learning about DNA with your kids? What traits run in your family? My kids would love it if you posted a picture of your family rolling their tongues (or not). Please leave a comment or photo below.