Process of Science > Browse examples for Teaching the Process of Science > Teaching Molecular Evolution and Phylogenetics

Teaching Molecular Evolution and Phylogenetics

This activity was designed by Nathan H. Lents, Ph.D. of John Jay College (CUNY) as part of the national Visionlearning project to teach the process of science
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This activity uses DNA sequences, protein sequence, and chromosome-density maps to re-trace the ancestry of humans and some of their closest relatives. Each section involves the same four or five species, but their identity is not revealed to the students, as a means to circumvent any "resistance" to the notion that humans have evolved from earlier species of non-human primates. Importantly, students are given data - sequences or chromosomes maps - and asked to reason for themselves. The data are real, not simulated, and the process the students use mimics the real way that evolutionary biologists deduce ancestry using molecular data.

Learning Goals

1.) Students learn about pseudogenes and the molecular clock.

2.) Students will appreciate the evolutionary relationship between humans and some of their closet relatives.

3.) Students will understand how cladograms are drawn, inferring evolutionary relationships from molecular data.

4.) Students will use the technique of parsimony analysis to make hypotheses.

Context for Use

Each activity can be used on its own, or they can be combined for a larger effect.
Each activity takes about 30 minutes. No laboratory materials are required - just paper, scissors, and tape.
This activity works well in a general biology course at the high school or college level
This activity should be engaged after some introduction to evolution, selection, mutation, and speciation has occurred. It does not need to be extensive coverage of those concepts and these activities could serve as the way in which those concepts are covered, but that will take more time.

Description and Teaching Materials

Instructor Guide (Acrobat (PDF) 250kB Jun17 13)

Student Handout (Acrobat (PDF) 247kB Jun17 13)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Please see the instructor guide for complete teaching notes.


Extensive assessment was done for this activity and is published here:

References and Resources

Please cite the original reference for this activity in any scholarly publications:

Lents NH, Cifuentes OE, and Carpi A. Teaching the Process of Molecular Phylogeny and Systematics: A Multi-part Inquiry-based Exercise. CBE: Life Sciences Education. Dec 2010; 9(4):p513-23.