Modeling the Structure of DNA
In this activity, students build a paper model of DNA and use their model to explore key structural features of the DNA double helix. This activity can be used to complement the short film The Double Helix.
Students use paper nucleotides printed on card stock to build a single-stranded DNA sequence assigned by their instructor. They then use the rules of base complementarity to construct a second strand and generate a three-dimensional double helix. Through building and observing this model, students explore the basic structure of phosphodiester bonds, base pairs, the spatial relationships among the components of nucleotides in DNA, and the antiparallel nature of the double helix. Written and video instructions describe each step of the model-building process.
You can download six videos (bundled as a ZIP file) to see how to build the DNA model, or you can stream them from YouTube via the links below:
- Paper DNA Model: Part 1: Preparing the Nucleotides
- Paper DNA Model: Part 2: Folding the Nucleotides
- Paper DNA Model: Part 3: Making a Strand of DNA
- Paper DNA Model: Part 4: Practicing Base-Pairing
- Paper DNA Model: Part 5: Building a Double Helix
- Paper DNA Model: Part 6: Expanding the Helix
Student Learning Targets
- Build a physical model of the DNA double helix.
- Use a model of DNA to explore and describe key structural features of the molecule.
deoxyribose, double helix, genetics, model, nitrogenous base, nucleotide, phosphate, phosphodiester bond
Franklin, Rosalind E. and R. G. Gosling. “Molecular Configuration in Sodium Thymonucleate.” Nature 171, 4356 (1953): 740–741. https://doi.org/10.1038/171740a0.
Watson, J. D. and F. H. C. Crick. “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid.” Nature 171, 4356 (1953): 737–738. https://doi.org/10.1038/171737a0.
Wilkins, M. H. F., A. R. Stokes, and H. R. Wilson. “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: Molecular Structure of Deoxypentose Nucleic Acids.” Nature 171, 4356 (1953): 738–740. https://doi.org/10.1038/171738a0.
Accessibility Level (WCAG compliance)
AP Biology (2019)
IST-1.K, IST-1.L, IST-1.M, SYI-1.B; SP2
IB Biology (2016)
Common Core (2010)
Vision and Change (2009)