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Translation simulation

This page and activity authored by Scott Cooper, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project
Initial Publication Date: January 16, 2007


This module introduces students to the basics behind translation of a messenger RNA sequence into protein. Students learn about reading frames, ribosomes, mRNA, tRNA, codons and anticodons.

In addition to text and movies, there are interactive shockwave animations that allow students to move ribosomes and tRNAs to perform translation. Both formative and summative assessment are also included.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

The primary goal of this unit is for students to see how translation is performed, and then to perform these steps themselves to reinforce their understanding.

Specific concepts they should master include:

  • The ribosome assembles at the first start codon on a mRNA.
  • Each codon on the mRNA pairs with a specific anticodon on the tRNA.
  • Specific amino acids are carried by each tRNA and joined together to form a growing protein.
  • Context for Use

    The site contains a variety of materials that will help students build a foundation for understanding translation. This is designed to be used by students for out of class review, or could be used in class if students had their own computers. A teacher could also use parts of the tutorial for in class presentations, but the student interactivity would be lost.

    These materials are broken into three types.
    Read: students read a text accompanied by images and animations to get some background information on translation.

    Interact: students use an interactive shockwave model of a ribosome, mRNA and tRNAs to perform a translation.

    Practice: students are given assessment questions that allow them to practice what they have learned.

    Description and Teaching Materials

    The activities in this tutorial are all on line and can be accessed through two different sites, also available through MERLOT .

    The first link takes you to a site where the three activities are broken down into individual units. It also contains some additional interactive activities for the students.

    The second link takes you to a single webpage with the materials incorporated directly into the page. It also contains practice problems for students to use, and a lecture for an introductory biology course based on translating the beta-hemoglobin gene in sickle cell anemia.

    Teaching Notes and Tips

    In our experience students get confused on two steps in translation. First, that translation starts at the first start codon (ATG in DNA, or AUG in mRNA). The second is in pairing anticodons with codons. This activity shows students how the process works, in a typical lecture/animation. It then allows students to perform the steps themselves, and won't proceed until they move the ribosome and/or tRNA correctly. This nicely complements traditional lecture, and is designed for students to perform on their own.


    The activities themsleves are a form of formative assessment, in which the students need to perform a task correctly before it will proceed. Feedback is also given in some of the shockwave animations.

    Both links contain summative assessment, in the form of practice problems with answers for the students. In the first link it is in the form of an on-line quiz, with feedback given for correct and incorrect answers. In the second link the problems are traditional exam style questions with answers given on a second link.

    References and Resources

    Additional sites on the translation of a mRNA sequence into a protein are also available, and may work better for some student learning styles. These are also available through MERLOT.

    Click to view MERLOT descriptions of related shockwave and flash Translation animations.

    Textbook like descriptions of translation with images.
    Biology Pages

    Lone animations (some do not show codons and anticodons)
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