Construction of a Phylogenetic Tree of Modern Humans

Overview & Concepts

This is a follow-up activity after students have sequenced their mtDNA in a previous lab (see "mtDNA Amplification and Comparison" in the Bioinformatics Activity Bank website). After we have received the sequences from our sequencing lab, students will be making a phylogenetic tree for students from different parts of the world.  The students will try to match their phylogenetic tree with the current concept of human migration from Africa.

Grade Level: 

Concepts Covered: 

Phylogenetics, mtDNA, Evolution, Divergence 

Prior Knowledge Required: 

DNA, Mutations, mtDNA, Phylogeny 

Activity Notes

Days to Teach: 

Construction and interpretation of phylogenetic tree (45 min) Comparison of phylogenetic tree to current models (20 min with discussion)


  • Computers and internet  
  • mtDNA sequences

Teaching Tips / Activity Overview: 

  • Follow the procedures outlined in "mtDNA Amplification and  comparison" in the Bioinformatics Activity Bank to get your DNA sequences.
  • Put a file on each classroom computers that contains the mtDNA sequences of selected individuals in the class.  In my classes I would choose 2 European students, 2 Asian students, and 2 African students. 
  • My school has an incredibly diverse international population; every year I have students from Ethiopia, Kenya, South Korea, China as well as students of African, European, and Hispanic decent. If you do not have the diversity of students in your classes, you can have students select modern human mtDNA sequences to create more diversity.

 Instructional Sequence:

  1. Introduction-The teacher will review how we obtained mtDNA sequences and give a brief overview of what we will be using them for today.
  2. Activity-Students will work in groups of 2 in a computer lab and follow the instructions on the "Construction of a Phylogenetic Tree of Modern Humans" handout.
  3. Wrap-up: The teacher will lead the students in a discussion of the difficulties they had and why they think the encountered those difficulties. 


During class the teaching will assess the involvement of each individual in their group. The "Construction of a Phylogenetic Tree of Modern Humans" handout must be turned in by each group of students and graded by the teacher. In the end of the unit test, an essay question will be included asking the students to explain why mtDNA can be used to develop phylogenetic trees.   




These teacher notes and resources were produced by Seth Buckwalter 

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