What CSI can teach students about DNA sequencing

When CSI: Crime Scene Investigation first premiered in 2000 on CBS, it was an immediate smash hit. In the years since it has been named the most watched show in the world five times with a worldwide audience of 73.8 million viewers.


Fans love the show’s mix of drama, mystery, and dark humor, which prompted CBS to create three different spinoffs, all of which have been hugely successful. And in March of this year they broke the world record for the “Largest Ever TV Drama Simulcast” when 171 countries watched a worldwide broadcast of the show.

In many CSI episodes the investigators are on the hunt for DNA evidence left at the crime scene that they could match with a potential suspect. Of course, because it’s a TV show, many creative liberties are taken that aren’t exactly true to real life criminal investigations or DNA science.

As a result, prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys alike have seen a growing phenomenon they’ve named the  “CSI effect.” In particular, jurors now expect forensic evidence to be presented in trials, even though it is relatively scarce in most crime scenes. Second, jurors place unwarranted levels in both forensic evidence and the experts that testify about it in criminal trials. And thirdly, forensic scientist Thomas Mauriello argues that as much as 40 percent of the science depicted in CSI is nonexistent.

The truth is DNA analysis was not accurate enough to identify a suspect until the 1980s, when Tommie Lee Andrews was convicted in 1987 due to DNA evidence at the crime scene. Today the science has advanced to the point that there is a one in more than a quadrillion chance of a random match of two people’s DNA.

That is where Labster’s CSI Lab comes in, helping to teach students DNA sequencing in an engaging and entertaining way that stays true to the science.

The lab begins just like the hit show, with the investigation of a murder scene. After collecting blood samples, the students go to a forensics lab to perform DNA analysis of their evidence, in hopes that the suspect’s DNA matches the collected perpetrator’s DNA.

But the lab isn’t all fun and games. It was created in collaboration with Dr. Mette Voldby Larsen, a professor at the Institute of System Biology at Denmark’s Technical University. Students explore the scientific principles behind Polymerase Chain Reactions and Gel Electrophoresis when sorting through their DNA samples in the virtual laboratory simulation. Upon completing the lab, students have a thorough understanding about DNA profiling and Small Tandem Repeats. Additionally, there is a quiz and a Labster Learning Wiki to deepen one’s understanding of the subject.

By combining the entertainment value of a show like CSI with a quality learning experience of a virtual laboratory, Labster is able to engage students in an innovative way. With nearly half of STEM university students dropping their major after their first year of studies, virtual labs like Labster’s CSI lab can go a long way in keeping more students interested and excited about the life sciences.

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