Estimated Lesson Duration:

30 minutes


As a class, students role-play as individual developing cells in an embryo to understand how cells in a human body have the same DNA, yet through epigenetics become specialized and take on a unique epigenetic profile.

Big Understanding:  The changing epigenome informs gene expression in a cell. As an embryo develops, signals received over time causes increasing changes in gene expressions. Epigenetic markers create further changes in the genes expressions as the markers shut down some genes and activates others nudging a cell toward its final destiny. The epigenetic profiles of each cell grow increasingly different over time. In the end different cell types form, each with a distinct identity and specialized function.


  • Genes provide the instructions for development and maintenance of the body.
  • A second set of instructions called the epigenome interact with DNA to activate or suppress the expression of particular genes.
  • Certain chemicals known as epigenetic markers turn genes off or on without changing the underlying genetic code.

Key Concepts and Standards:

Key Concepts: Introduce how epigenetics leads to specialized cells

Standards: Download the summary sheet about how this lesson meets standards

The standards listed were identified using key concepts from each individual lesson. These key concepts were aligned with the specific Oregon State Standards, Common Core Standards, and Next Generation Science Standards that apply specifically to each individual lesson.

Teachers may consult the Oregon Department of Education’s website for additional terms related to each lesson.


Preparations/ Materials

1. If possible, take students to a big open space

2. Hand each student a number/symbol Cell Differentiation game card.

3. Then have students line up with their card in a horizontal line across back of space in a random order

4. Explain to the students that they all represent cells in a developing embryo. Every cell in the embryo while containing the same DNA will over time develop into specialized cells. This is due to the epigenetic markers that create changes in gene expressions as the markers shut down some genes and activates others within a cell. In the end, different cell types form, each with a distinct epigenetic profile and specialized function. For example some will become bone cells, muscle cells, skin cells, heart cells, brain cells, stem cells etc.

5. Their game cards have letters which represent specific proteins in a gene.

6. Remind students to take fairly uniform size steps forward and backward depending on what the symbols are called out on their card.

7. Read all the “Gene Expression Instructions” out loud informing students to move forward or backward based on the letter combinations.

8. While students are still in the formation created at the end of game, explain how the each symbol on their card stands for using epigenetic marker being expressed.

Downloadable Lesson and Supporting Materials

Lesson Plans