There are five components to the Biology virtual labs.
Students are able to select species from the Species Selector and place them in a virtual biome defined by rainfall, seasonal temperatures, and elevation among other abiotic factors. Once the species and their initial populations have been selected and a biome defined, the species are then allowed to reproduce, interact, and die, and the populations’ biomass or energy content, of the selected species, are monitored as a function of time. Students can also investigate and study how changes in abiotic factors or migration of species affect population equilibrium.
The Genetics laboratory has two distinct experiment types: one covering Mendelian genetics and the other covering Population genetics.
For Mendelian experiments, students can select a set of traits for a species, define the initial genotype for the parents, and cross these parents to produce the first generation of offspring. For the first generation, they are then able to perform specific or random crosses of the offspring to produce subsequent generations. For each generation, a summary is given with both individual offspring phenotype information as well as the whole population phenotype frequencies. The goal is to enable students to observe how the selected traits get expressed as a function of generation, and then from these observations determine and understand the genetic model governing expression of these traits.
For Population experiments, students are able to select an allele frequency within a population and manipulate different forces on that population to see how they affect the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium. These forces and variables include population size, allele frequency, mutation rates, genotype fitness, assortative and disassortative mating, and linkage disequilibrium. The goal is to demonstrate the basic principles of Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium and also the effects of population forces on this equilibrium.
The Microscopy laboratory enables students to explore the virtual world of species from the microscopic to the macroscopic using microscopes with a wide range of magnifications. The microscopes available in the laboratory include a dissecting microscope, compound microscope, scanning electron microscope (SEM), and a transmission electron microscope (TEM). There is also a field microscope for observing objects using no magnification or with normal eyesight. These microscopes provide a complete and realistic series of magnifications enabling students to view a wide range of images, subjects, and scales. The focus in this laboratory is on viewing and interpreting the images and not on sample or slide preparation techniques.
The Molecular Biology laboratory enables students to extract a DNA sample from any of the available sample species, amplify a segment of the DNA using polymerase chain reaction (PCR), run a gel electrophoresis experiment on any of the amplified products, and place a sample in an automatic sequencer to determine the sequence of the amplified segments or genes. When setting up to run a PCR experiment, students will need to add the appropriate nucleotides, Taq polymerase, and select the correct primers to successfully amplify the desired segment. The student must also set up the PCR instrument with the correct temperatures and dwell times for the denaturation, annealing, and elongation steps. Once the gene sequences have been determined, these can be saved to the lab book for analysis or copied and used in other external analysis websites.
The Systematics laboratory enables students to classify a selected species into taxa using the traits or characters of the species. The classification can be performed using a traditional ranked system or by building a cladogram-type structure or tree. The ultimate goal is for students to determine the taxonomy of a species or set of species and visualize the different taxonomic relationships. Various classification schemes are provided including simple, Linnaean, three domain, six kingdom, and a scheme based on the Tree of Life. There is also a glossary and explanation of several species classifying approaches.