DNA Surveillance Unit: Is That an Endangered Whale You’re Eating?

Overview & Concepts

In order to better understand DNA fingerprinting and its real world applications, students will use a real genomic site, DNA Surveillance, based in New Zealand, to test whale samples against a standard database. This is done to monitor the sale of protected whale species in Japanese fish markets.

Students will be using sequences generated from whale meat for which the mitochondrial DNA has been isolated and sequenced. The sequences are then compared - via the production of cladograms - to reference data sets of all common whales both protected and fished.  The closeness of a match, between a reference sequence and the test sequence, then generates a calculation of evolutionary distance. A distance of 0 indicates a certain match. A distance of 1 is no correlation, definitely not a match. Greater distances increase the uncertainty. The interpretation of the data, with students learning to appreciate degrees of uncertainty, favors higher-level cognitive skills, as described in Bloom's taxonomy.

Grade Level: 

Concepts Covered: 

Whales Genomics, DNA Surveillance, Population Genetics, Endangered Species, Cladograms

Prior Knowledge Required: 

A review of DNA and its use in this activity is provided the day before the activity. Students should also be familiar with DNA, as they usually complete biology (9th or 10th grade) before environmental science (11th or 12th grade).

Activity Notes

Days to Teach: 

2 Days


  • Q and A for Fish tale has DNA hook: students find bad labels
  • Copies of Fish tale
  • Computer, Word and web browser, Web access, printer and paper
  • Web site for DNA Surveillance: http://www.cebl.auckland.ac.nz:9000/
  • Instructions, and Q and A sheet for DNA Surveillance site

Teaching Tips / Activity Overview: 

Day One

  1. Provide lecture and notes to reinforce basic DNA and Genomics understanding.     
  2. Students will also read and respond to the article “ Fish tale has DNA hook: students find bad labels”
  3. To build relevancy and interest, touch upon the following questions:
  • Are we moving into an era where typical citizens can help to enforce laws?
  • Is this good or bad?  Re: Whale Wars (the TV show), and liability mentioned in the NYC fish market article.

Day Two

  1. Students will access the DNA Surveillance site, and initially answer a series of orienting questions, grouped under the following themes:
  • Intro to DNA Surveillance..link at bottom of entrance portal,
  • What is bioinformatics..icon in top right corner,
  • Witness for the Whales intro page.
  • About..top icon bar..details on program
  • How to use site…top icon bar
  • Cluster simple
  • Sample data

2.     Students will then use DNA Student Instructions Lab 1 to test whale samples.

  • They will start with 4 whale unknowns. They cut and past the UNKNOWN DNA test sequences into the interface, choose the correct DNA reference sequence for each analysis, and generate the identities of the unknown animals. These will be presented visually in cladistic diagrams, as well as in table form, as descending correlation( 1 is perfect, 0 is no correlation). Results can then be confirmed on the site.  
  • Students will also have the chance to use the wrong reference sequences, and explore how the results change.  
  • Students will use Wiki to confirm protected status of Whales once identified.

3.     Students will use DNA Student Instructions Lab 2 and the Inspector Foode website to test other samples.

  • Students will then progress to the Inspector Foode site, where they will use data sets from Whales and Parrots, to see what the results will be. The student s will then be required to assess the quality of the results, and identify the causes of the different results obtained.
  • Skills practiced: Organizational, web/word document interfacing, logic, level 3, 4 and 5 of Blooms Taxonomy for processing, interpreting and experimenting.


  • Students will be able to immediately assess their accuracy and interpretation via the same web portal.  They will also complete the analysis worksheet, which will be then shared between groups. This will allow collegial discussion, and vetting of errors.
  • This activity will be followed up with a quiz, on same. 





These teacher notes and resources were produced by George Tucker, Downingtown Area High School, West Campus, August 2010.

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