Teens stake a claim on their DNA - and the lessons stick
At Fremont High School here in Oakland, biology lab goes beyond traditional frog dissection and uses a touch of performance art to get at important science lessons and the ethical issues behind them.
As part of his annual unit on genetics, 10th-grade biology teacher Steven Miller asks his students to "copyright" their DNA - a molecule that scientists believe to be the basis of human biology because it holds the blueprint for everything from the color of a person's hair to the shape of one's nose.
The copyrighting exercise is a way of establishing students' claim on their own DNA. It encourages them to think beyond the biological aspects of DNA and confront moral concerns sparked by the patenting and sale of genetic material.
The technique is easy and inexpensive. First, each student self-addresses an envelope. Standing next to the front page of the local newspaper, they pose for photos - tongue sticking out with postage stamp attached.
Human cheeks shed cells constantly inside the mouth. By licking a stamp, or the glue on an envelope, cheek cells on the tongue stick to the glue. As the glue dries, the cheek cells and their DNA are fixed into place.
The newspaper provides a date-stamp for the picture, and when the students mail the pictures to themselves, the government postmark on the sealed envelope makes the date official. When the process is complete, students have created what's known as a "poor person's copyright" for their DNA.
A similar process has long been used by artists and songwriters to informally copyright their work. Although the DNA version may not hold up in a courtroom, it serves Mr. Miller's purpose by making his lessons tangible.
"The problem teachers face is that we're presenting a lot of this material in an abstract way already, and the kids are getting antsy because we haven't been doing too many labs," Miller says. "So how do you raise the ethical questions - which the kids like - in a way that's got a hands-on aspect to it?"
Miller found his answer in the "DNA Project" (www.mudhaus.com/marilyn). Founded by San Francisco artist Marilyn Donahue, the grass-roots venture aims to get people thinking about genetics research and patenting. Ms. Donahue sees her act of copyrighting DNA as a type of performance art that continues to have an impact.
She also wanted to help educate people about science, partly because of her background in pharmacology. "I saw that the public didn't get involved in scientific issues until it was too late, and then it would become a fear reaction. I think it's important that people get involved in the discussion at a much earlier point," she says.
Miller read about Donahue's project and is now in his second year of using the idea in his classroom. That's a move that pleases Donahue because, she says, "the children are inheriting this whole problem."
Miller had been searching for a way to expand his lessons because his school lacks the equipment to go much further than extracting DNA from a kiwi fruit. He took his cue from the school's bright green biology textbook, which begins its chapter on genetics by discussing the John Moore decision of 1991.
In this case, the courts decided that a line of cancer cells, and the profits from their sale, did not belong to the man whose body produced the cells, but to the researchers who removed and cultivated them.
The idea that a person's cells might not belong to him, along with the recent explosion of DNA patenting by biotechnology companies, are issues that Miller says his students can get passionate about.
When Ingrid Jeffers, now an 11th-grader at Fremont, got the copyrighting assignment last year, her first reaction was, "What? Are you crazy?" But she began to take the lesson seriously when she learned about gene patenting and the possibility that corporations could patent human genes and use their findings to make a profit.
"The fact that the US is letting other people patent our genes is wrong," she says.
Donahue and Miller estimate that up to 1,000 people now hold an informal copyright for their own DNA. Miller says his students relate to the issues of individual rights partly because they often feel like victims of the police or other forms of institutional power.
He has the students read a variety of magazine articles and a United Nations statement on the uses and abuses of DNA patenting. He also covers such current events as the human genome project - a collaborative research effort to map the human system's 23 pairs of chromosomes (coiled up strands of DNA, each with hundreds or thousands of genes).
"Knowledge requires a context, and to act upon knowledge requires a context," he says. "But communicating the context is challenging."
It's not easy to get discussions going on patent law, Miller says. Yet this project has managed to inspire some enthusiasm and strong opinions. Miller asks his students to articulate those views in hypothetical letters to Congress.
Marquitta Wesley, one of last year's students, sums up her thoughts this way: "I think it should be your choice what you do with your DNA," she says.
Easy steps to 'copyright' DNA
This largely symbolic exercise is encouraged by people concerned about corporate use of DNA:
Take a photo of yourself licking a stamp, including that day's newspaper to show the date. Cells containing DNA stick to the glue.
Put the stamp on an envelope and mail the photo to yourself, so the date is confirmed by the post office.
Keep the envelope (unopened) in case someone else ever claims to own your DNA.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society