Evolution and Genetics

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SimBio Virtual Labs provide unique opportunities for your students to explore the mechanisms of evolution by conducting experiments on systems that work on evolutionary timescales.

We are committed to finding ways to help students overcome misconceptions about evolution. A series of NSF grants and collaborations with top evolutionary biologists and educators over the past decade have been instrumental in helping us achieve this important goal. We offer foundation labs designed for non-majors and introductory biology courses as well as more advanced labs for evolution and genetics courses. See our publications page for data on the effectiveness of our labs, and check out the labs themselves to see how interesting and fun they are for your students.

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Chapter: Evolution for Ecology
Introduces evolution, natural selection, and selection and drift in quantitative traits, developed specifically for use in ecology classes. Uses examples with both basic and applied ecology interest, including sticklebacks and pest resistance to Bt cotton.
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Level: Intro, Sophomore/Junior
Key Concepts: Evolution | Natural Selection | population genetics
Courses: Ecology | Intro Bio: Eco/Evo/Genetics
Lab: Darwinian Snails Demo video available
An introductory lab that examines the assumptions behind natural selection using an engaging interactive simulation of green crabs preying on periwinkle snails. Students are able to "violate" each assumption in turn to explore whether evolution by natural selection still occurs. Exercises are targeted to address common misconceptions among biology students. Suitable for non-majors and introductory biology courses.
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Level: Intro
Key Concepts: Experimental Design | Genetic Variation | Heritability | Natural Selection
Courses: Evolution | Intro Bio: Eco/Evo/Genetics | Intro Bio: Non-majors | Marine Biology
Reviews:
"[I like] the way [the Snail lab] walks the students through the requirement for natural selection one by one, and shows what happens if each of the requirements isn't met. I also like that it has students working with real data."
Dr. Jennie Hoffman, Everett Community College
"[In the snail lab, I liked] the active student participation. Students were very involved and excited about 'being a crab' and actually eating the snails. Students reinforced their ability to graph data and made use of critical thinking skills; reinforcement of the fact that it is populations, not individuals, that evolve and the factors that effect evolution of populations; the knowledge that they could study an evolutionary process in real time. "
Dr. Laura Pannaman, New Jersey City University
"We completed running 20 Biology sections of Darwnian Snails last week. The laboratory sessions went very well. Most instructors opted to take students to our computer lab and offer help while the students worked at the computer. Some instructors gave students the option of completing the exercise at home. Very minimal problems were reported with the software. ...All in all I saw lots of smiling faculty and heard the comment more than once that this lab really drives home basic principles of evolution."
Dr. Joel Watkins, Schoolcraft College, Introductory Biology Course
Lab: Hardy, Weinberg and Kuru
Uses Kuru disease in New Guinea to teach Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium. Students discover the equilibrium principle from their observations, and play with violating the assumptions to explore the mechanisms of evolution. Also see the effect of heterozygote advantage. Suitable for both intro bio and advanced courses.
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Level: Intro or Advanced
Key Concepts: Hardy-Weinberg Equation | Punnett squares
Courses: Evolution | Hardy-Weinberg | Intro Bio: Eco/Evo/Genetics | Population Genetics
Lab: Sickle-Cell Alleles Demo video available
An interactive simulation of the classic malaria and sickle-cell anemia system is used to explore natural selection and genetic drift. Students examine African villages with different malaria death rates. First they use the Hardy-Weinberg equation to calculate the expected proportion of sickle-cell carriers from HbS and HbA allele frequencies. Then they examine how the allele frequencies change with changes in malaria risk and with different "founder" scenarios. Finally they explore genetic drift without selection by looking at different-sized villages where both diseases have been cured. An optional advanced section allows independent exploration of evolutionary forces using a basic population genetics model with adjustable parameters for selection strength, immigration rate, and population size. This is one of our most popular labs for introductory biology courses.
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Level: Intro
Key Concepts: Genetic Drift | Hardy-Weinberg Equation | Natural Selection
Courses: Evolution | Hardy-Weinberg | Intro Bio: Eco/Evo/Genetics | Population Genetics
Reviews:
"We used the Sickle-Cell EcoBeaker™ lab with all 1100 freshman enrolled in our majors biology course in the fall of 2003. The results truly impressed me — I felt like the students had a much stronger grasp of Hardy-Weinberg theory as a result of this interactive exercise and exam scores went up as well. "
Dr. Linda Walters, Central Florida University, Majors Introductory Biology
"I had great success using your EcoBeaker™ labs, Keystone Predator and Sickle-Cell Alleles, in my BIO102 General Biology II class (4 lab sections, 96 students) this spring semester. "
Dr. Daniel Vogt, Plattsburgh State University, General Biology
"This is just a quick email to let you know that the Sickle-cell lab went very well last week!! The TAs thought it went very well and the feedback from number of students I spoke to was also very positive. ...I was very pleased to be able to introduce this topic into a compulsory course here at the Technion in a Faculty that has major emphasis on molecular biology and less on populations, ecology and evolution."
Dr. Debbie Lindell, Technion, Israel
Lab: Flowers and Trees
Introduces students to evolutionary trees using an interactive simulation of Columbine flower diversification. Students observe Columbine populations split and diverge while an expanding evolutionary tree illustrates each population's history. Students further learn to interpret evolutionary trees by creating their own and reconstructing the history of mystery populations. Suitable for both introductory and advanced biology and evolution courses.
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Level: Intro or Advanced
Key Concepts: Evolutionary Trees | Neutral Evolution | Phylogenetic Reconstruction | Tree-thinking
Courses: Evolution | Intro Bio: Eco/Evo/Genetics | Intro Bio: Non-majors | Macroevolution
Reviews:
"I did tell you that I like EvoBeaker very much.  The programs compliment each other really well and I'd love to work with several of them that highlight common ancestor, but I am limited in the time I have. I am going to try to fit in two of them, near the end of the semester.  I think 'Flowers and Trees' with its phylogenetic trees and either Dogs or HIV, to get the sequence comparisons. "
Dr. Robert Hodson, University of Delaware, 600 Student Introductory Biology Class
"I was very impressed with the lab exercises when I ran through them last night — they are not only fun, but move seamlessly through the logic of building cladograms. I will definitely incorporate the lab into my future classes. "
Dr. Robin Andrews, Virginia Tech University
"I just wanted to let you know that we've completed our first lab of the three as of yesterday [Flowers and Trees]. The students thought it was "easy" and yet, were challenged as they continued to work through the exercises. It was not only promising, but reinvigorating for the Teaching Assistants who had taught it prior to this semester. Thank you!! We're looking forward to completing the next one soon."
Dr. Faye Farmer, Arizona State University, Introductory Biology Course
Lab: How the Guppy Got Its Spots
Recreate Endler's famous studies of guppy spot brightness in different streams in Trinidad. Students observe the pattern of spot brightness across several pools, then apply classic experimental techniques such as transplants, removals, and behavioral studies to uncover the mechanisms behind the pattern.
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Level: Advanced
Key Concepts: Experimental Design | Natural Selection | Sexual selection
Courses: Evolution | Microevolution
Reviews:
"The guppies lab was a big hit, and I think the chance to design and test hypotheses is suitable for students at all levels. ...I am very happy with your software."
Dr. Maarten Vonhof, Western Michigan University
Lab: Evolutionary Evidence Demo video available
A powerful lab for introducing students to the evidence that convinces biologists that life on earth evolved. It covers a key piece of evidence for evolutionary theory, focusing on how related species should have nested sets of traits that reflect their evolutionary tree. Students compare traits of evolved species versus traits of independently created species and learn how to quantify the difference. They then use this quantification to predict the order that traits should appear in the fossil record among different species of simulated lizards. Finally, they apply their methods to the real fossil record for a set of 7 extant species.
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Level: Intro
Key Concepts: Common Ancestor | Evidence | Evolution | Fossils | Nested Sets | phylogenetics | theory
Courses: Evolution | Intro Bio: Eco/Evo/Genetics | Intro Bio: Non-majors
Lab: Mendelian Pigs
This lab connects basic Mendelian genetics to basic population genetics using variation in coat color of pigs, a well-understood trait. Students first conduct crosses to determine the relationships between four different coat color alleles. They are also introduced to the molecular basis for the different alleles and how that leads to their genetics. Then students must use this system to answer population-level questions such as "will a dominant allele always increase in frequency over a recessive allele?". Along the way, they are also introduced to the Hardy-Weinberg equation and why it is useful. This lab was built as part of a larger NSF-funded research project into student misconceptions in genetics and evolution.
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Level: Intro, Sophomore/Junior
Key Concepts: Allele | Dominance | Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium | Mendelian Crosses | Mendelian Genetics | Mutation | population genetics | recessive
Courses: Evolution | Genetics | Intro Bio: Majors
Lab: Finches and Evolution (was Islands and Natural Selection)
This laboratory explores how selection can act on two multi-locus traits as the selection regime changes. The example used is beak width and depth of Darwin's finches in wet and dry environments. Students manipulate optimal width and/or depth, selection strengths, correlations between the traits, and other factors that can affect the way selection acts and observe the consequences. In the final sections of the lab students are given two different environments or resources and challenged to manipulate a population so it will split into two subpopulations. This is a nice lab for exploring the consequences of natural selection, using a famous case study.
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Level: Intro or Advanced
Key Concepts: Natural Selection | Speciation
Courses: Evolution | Intro Bio: Eco/Evo/Genetics
Lab: Genetic Drift and Bottlenecked Ferrets

This lab explores how random genetic drift impacts populations, using a conservation-oriented story about rescuing black-footed ferrets from extinction. Students observe the rate of genetic drift in populations of different sizes and conduct experiments to investigate how and why population size affects changes in genetic diversity across generations. Students become familiar with the meanings of heterozygosity and effective population size (Ne) in the course of their experimentation. The lab culminates with students applying these ideas to black-footed ferrets, a species that experienced a population bottleneck and is currently being managed both for population size and genetic diversity.

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Level: Intro, Sophomore/Junior
Key Concepts: Conservation Genetics | Effective Population Size | Heterozygosity | population bottleneck | random genetic drift
Courses: Conservation Biology | Evolution | Intro Bio: Majors
Reviews:
"

It was easy to follow and actually kind of fun.

The simulations were easy to follow and fun

It was easy to understand and it allowed me to remain involved and interested.

I liked that it gave me an opportunity to design my own experiment.

The visuals made the concepts easy to follow and I liked running my own experiment at the end.

A fun interactive way to learn about genetic drift

"

Anonymous Students
Lab: HIV Clock
When did HIV swing from chimps to humans? Explores the use of RNA sequence changes as a way of measuring time, including discussion of synonymous vs. non-synonymous mutations for detecting selection. At the end, students estimate the age of HIV-1.
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Level: Advanced
Key Concepts: Molecular Clocks | Neutral Evolution
Courses: Evolution | Population Genetics
Reviews:
"I did tell you that I like EvoBeaker very much.  The programs compliment each other really well and I'd love to work with several of them that highlight common ancestor, but I am limited in the time I have. I am going to try to fit in two of them, near the end of the semester.  I think 'Flowers and Trees' with its phylogenetic trees and either Dogs or HIV, to get the sequence comparisons. "
Dr. Robert Hodson, University of Delaware, 600 Student Introductory Biology Class
Lab: Domesticating Dogs
Domesticate dogs from two forest wolf populations into several villages. Then trade computers with another student and try to reconstruct their pattern of domestication by sampling dog DNA from each village and using simple evolutionary tree reconstruction algorithms. Along the way, see how mutations accumulate in neutral DNA sequences.
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Level: Advanced
Key Concepts: Phylogenetic Reconstruction
Courses: Evolution | Microevolution | Population Genetics
Reviews:
"I did tell you that I like EvoBeaker very much.  The programs compliment each other really well and I'd love to work with several of them that highlight common ancestor, but I am limited in the time I have. I am going to try to fit in two of them, near the end of the semester.  I think 'Flowers and Trees' with its phylogenetic trees and either Dogs or HIV, to get the sequence comparisons. "
Dr. Robert Hodson, University of Delaware, 600 Student Introductory Biology Class
"I think the lab went very well...It quickly became apparent that the answers differed among the groups. So I responded "why did we all get different amounts of nucleotide differences?"— they were pretty quick to respond that it was because genetic drift works randomly. I think the lab had its highlight with the "Trick your Neighbor" exercise. I think they really enjoyed the sleuthing that was involved in trying to discover the evolutionary history of the dog packs. This exercise seemed appropriately challenging that kept them thinking. "
Dr. Scott Boback, Dickinson College, Population and Evolution Class
"I really love the Domesticating Dogs lab, it's just a wonderful,very clever lab that integrates multiple concepts. Really perfect for us right now. "
Dr. Michael McCartney, University of North Carolina, Wilmington

I LOVE that every lab is based on a real study. I LOVE that all of the labs offer an open-ended inquiry. I LOVE that the labs gradually teach the concepts and build up a repertoire of data collection techniques. Thank you for creating them.

Jeanette Williams, Community College of Vermont