Using a Food Analogy to Think About Protein Synthesis

Written by Kelly A. Hogan, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Learning Outcomes:

– To think about transcription and translation broadly

– To think about the “instructions” a cell uses abstractly

Activity Description: Students work in pairs to think about how the “instructions” of the cell are used to make proteins and form an analogy using a restaurant. Students are asked to think about the molecular players of DNA synthesis and are asked to think about their counterparts in a restaurant. To promote discussion, students complete their answers on a blank paper or 3 x 5 index card. Once finished they will pass their answers randomly in the classroom and read each other’s ideas aloud. This activity can be done in a large class.

Time Needed: 15-20 minutes

Materials Needed: Paper or 3 x 5 index cards

Activity Instructions: On paper or index cards, have students think about the analogy that making proteins is like a meal that is made in a restaurant. Students begin by making a list of molecular players in transcripton, mRNA processing, and translation, and then consider who their counterpart would be in their analogy in a restaurant. You may choose to put a list of words they must use in their analogy (see boldfaced words below). There will be many variations. The value of this activity is in discussing why a particular analogy works or doesn’t work.


The restaurant’s large recipe book represents a DNA genome. A head chef writes out the recipe for the main course and posts it on a blackboard. The re-writing is transcription and the words written in chalk represent mRNA. (There may be hundreds of recipes, but the head chef only chooses one to make right now.) Some chefs modify the recipe by writing on the blackboard to add extra chili power or salt etc. (This represents mRNA processing.) Next, each chef begins assembling the dish by bringing all the correct ingredients to the pot on the stove. The pot represents the ribosome and the ingredients represent the amino acids. The chef represents the tRNA who carries the right ingredients to the pot. The ingredients are added in the order dictated by the directions written in chalk and this cooking is analogous to translation. The final cooked dish represents the protein. This special dish may be temporary because the head chef can erase the blackboard at any time. mRNAs are also temporary; when they are not present, the protein cannot be made.

A restaurant can choose to make various appetizers, main dishes, and desserts on different nights. All of these recipes are in the big recipe book. This analogy can help with a discussion about how different cells in the body have the same DNA but express different proteins to specialize.

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