Why some people can roll their tongues

Canadian Museum of Nature teaches kids a little bit about life



A group of Grade 7 students at Aqsarniit School stick their tongues out at a woman standing at the front of the classroom.

Dahlia Tanasoiou, a senior educator with the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, is used to it. She’s asked them to try and roll their tongues. It’s a hereditary trait, she explains, one that is passed down from parent to child.

Tanasoiou is giving a presentation on DNA and genetics to a number of classes in Iqaluit. By the end of the day she’ll have had 13 different groups of kids from four local schools stick their tongues out at her.

The Museum of Nature, along with Genome Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, is working to put together a national travelling exhibition that will present people with a broad spectrum of information about the field of genomics. It will be called The Geee! In Genome.

Scheduled to open in the spring of 2003, the exhibit will educate and entertain by mixing learning with fun. Tanasoiou is testing the activities to see what works with different age groups. Although the exhibit won’t travel to Nunavut, it will be available over the Internet.

“How many people here love spicy food?” Tanasoiou asks. Of 27 students, about 22 raise their hands. “Well, now we’re going to do a test of taste blindness.”

Tanasoiou passes out small pieces of paper to volunteer students and asks them to put the paper on their tongues. The paper has a chemical on it that some people can taste but others can’t.

“For some of you, it will just taste like paper,” she says. “For others it will taste just terrible, maybe like grapefruit, pepper, or vinegar.”

Those who can’t taste the chemical are often the ones who like spicy foods, she explains, because they need to add extra spice so they can taste it. Again, the trait is one that’s passed down from one’s parents.

Tanasoiou’s visit was initiated by the Nunavut Research Institute’s Simply Science Schools program, which is funded under the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s Promoscience program.

Rick Armstrong, manager of scientific support services for the Nunavut Research Institute, says the institute received $21,000 last February and has used the cash to hold four events so far — three in Iqaluit schools and one in Rankin Inlet and Arviat. He’s hoping to receive more money for the coming year.

“I may have enough money left that I can get someone into Cambridge Bay as well,” he says. “I’m hoping if we can get extended funding on this then we can get into the smaller places too. It’s a learning experience. We’re finding out who’s out there and available and who’s really good at this sort of stuff.”

Tanasoiou, who has set the students at ease with her giggling and direct eye contact, asks them why they should care about genes, chromosomes and DNA.

“It’s the cycle of life,” pipes up one girl.

“Yes, it’s the cycle of life,” Tanasoiou answers, but adds many inherited diseases are found in genes, such as cancer, hemophilia, and cystic fibrosis.

The final activity for the students is to write their names in DNA. Tanasoiou hands out a sheet that matches each letter of the alphabet to a sequence of DNA codes. Each of the codes then corresponds to a colour. The students share boxes of coloured beads and thread the appropriate beads onto a piece of wire, spelling out their names. The end of the wire is then twisted off to form a key chain.

“That’s my name in DNA,” student Lauren Solski says, holding her colourful assembly in front of her. “That’s so cool.”

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