In this lesson, students discuss the definition of genetically modified organisms, learn about the risks and benefits of research on G.M.O.’s, explore the growing do-it-yourself biology movement, and develop proposals seeking to either restrict or permit research into genetically modifying the avian flu virus.
INQUIRY: What lessons can we learn about genetically engineered organisms from the example of the jabberjay, a fictional bird in the movie “The Hunger Games”?
Read the following prompt written on the board or projected from a doc cam or projector:
In the movie “The Hunger Games,” the Capitol (a term used to refer to what we would call the government) produced genetically enhanced birds called jabberjays to spy on rebels. Unexpectedly, these birds bred with mockingbirds, creating a new hybrid bird called the mockingjay. The Capitol did not intend for this to happen, and the bird became a symbol of rebellion. What lessons can we draw about genetic engineering from these examples? Could a scenario like this, where a genetically engineered organism hybridizes with a wild animal or native plant, happen in the real world? Why or why not?
Allow several minutes for students to reply individually to this prompt in their interactive science journals. Then, take a quick poll by simply asking students to raise their hands if they think a scenario like the one depicted in “The Hunger Games” could happen in the real world. Instructors can also use digital means of collecting data about students initial views using the polling feature on platforms such as Edmodo and PollEverywhere.
Based on the results of the student poll ask:
“What conditions would be required for a genetically engineered organism to hybridize with a wild animal or plant? What steps could be put in place to keep this from happening?”
Students will read the article “Do-It-Yourself Biology, on the Wings of the Mockingjay,” in which James Gorman reports on the growing availability of tools to modify organisms, and the possibility that a creature like the bird imagined in the “Hunger Games” series could someday exist:
"Genetically modified organisms are not wildly popular these days, except one: a fictional bird that is central to the hugely popular movie and book trilogy “The Hunger Games.” That’s the mockingjay, a cross between a mockingbird and a genetically engineered spy bird called a jabberjay."
Students should read the entire article using an appropriate strategy for reading complex text such as reciprocal reading, Talking to the Text and/or other text annotating methods.
In order to prepare for group discussion and to enhance reading comprehension, students should preview the following questions based on the New York Times Article BEFORE reading the text and respond to them in writing.
1. What is a genetically modified organism?
2. What is a jabberjay? A mockingjay?
3. What roles do these organisms play in the book series “The Hunger Games”?
4. What is the value of creating genetically modified organisms? What are some of the concerns surrounding G.M.O.’s?
5. What predictions can you make for what might happen if the tools of biotechnology spread to everyone, and lead to “an explosion of diversity of new living creatures”?
In the main article, the author states, “The tools needed to modify organisms are already widely dispersed in industry and beyond.”
That could mean the development of an animal like a jabberjay might not be so far-fetched. In fact, a growing “do-it-yourself” biology movement raises concerns about how easy it might be for people outside research laboratories to create harmful micro-organisms.
To familiarize students with D.I.Y. biology, have the class read Carl Zimmer’s article summarizing concerns held by some scientists about the possibility that “garage scientists” might inadvertently create and release harmful viruses, like avian flu.
Students will then use the avian flu example to develop presentations for the National Institutes of Health’s National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosecurity regarding D.I.Y. biology and current research into the avian flu virus.
Divide the class into the following four groups, and assign them to research and present on the questions described below for each:
1. D.I.Y. Biologists
Students in this group should be able to describe the “Do-It-Yourself” biology movement. They should address concerns about the safety of D.I.Y. biology and discuss whether this type of activity should be regulated. Students also should be prepared to talk about whether increased accessibility to the tools of biotechnology presents any biosecurity risks. Note to teachers: Students may find some valuable insights in the readers’ comments section of this article.
2. Scientists Who Support the Publication of Research That May Make It Easier for the Avian Flu Virus to Spread Among Mammals
Students in this group should convince the board of the importance of a better understanding of how the avian flu virus works, and present the evidence for it. They should be able to explain why some scientists believe that in the interests of public safety, this research needs to proceed and be made publicly available.
3. Researchers Opposed to This Research and Its Publication
Students in this group should convince the board that research that alters the avian flu virus in a way that makes it contagious to mammals should be limited. They should first explain how avian flu, in its unaltered form, can be transmitted to mammals from birds. They also should be able to explain why scientists involved in the research voluntarily stopped their work last winter.
4. Members of the National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosecurity
While the other groups prepare their presentations, this group should explore the arguments for and against research into avian flu contagion. In addition, students should identify arguments both for and against limiting or regulating the availability of biotechnology to D.I.Y. researchers. As they research, students should compose a list of questions they will ask the other groups as they present.
When all groups have completed their research, they should make short presentations to those students selected to be members of the National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosecurity group. As these presentations are made, the students playing the board members should pose critical questions to each of the teams, asking them to explain why their point of view regarding potentially risky research should prevail.
When all the students have finished their presentations, allow a few minutes for the advisory board group to decide what steps its members would take regarding research into avian flu virus, as well as what suggestions about the D.I.Y. biology movement they would make. At the same time, have the rest of the students, working individually, decide which presentation they thought was the most convincing, and why. (You may consider instructing students that they cannot vote for their own groups presentation. I have found this to be a beneficial practice and forces students to consider points of view other than their own.) When the members of the advisory board announce their choice, poll the class using a digital means of collecting data about students views such as Edmodo and PollEverywhere. Based on the results of the student poll ask if students agree the result. Why or why not?
In order to leverage student expertise and provide an opportunity for students to demonstrate mastery, students will create their own potential genetically modified organisms that could be used by governments. They might find inspiration in this summary of some of the ways government intelligence agencies have attempted to use animals in various spy missions such as the potential to use glowing bacteria to encrypt secret messages. Invite them to create and display illustrations or prototypes of their organisms along with information about the origins and special characteristics of each organism that is designed. Finally students should explain, either in writing or as an oral presentation, the potential risks as well as the benefits associated with the creation and use of their genetically modified organism.
Although there is value in providing instructor feedback, students, as members of the audience, are the best individuals to evaluate each group presentation using the oral presentation rubric provided. Consider having students complete the rubric during the group presentations and provide feedback to each group.