Reindl, K.M., White, A. R., Johnson, C., Vender, B., Slator, B.M., and McClean, P. (2105) The Virtual Cell Animation Collection: Tools for Teaching Molecular and Cellular Biology. PLoS Biology 13(4): e1002118 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1002118The paper focuses on the value of short animations for teaching biochemistry and molecular biology to advanced high school students and college students.
There's nothing in the paper about the scientific accuracy of the presentations or the pedagogical approach and this is unfortunate. The animations only show complex eukaryotic cells in spite of the fact that the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology recommends an evolutionary approach to teaching. The fact that the videos emphasize eukaryotes leads to some interesting descriptions of fundamental processes.
Look at the video on transcription regulation for example [Regulated Transcription]. The textbooks teach this using simple systems such as E. coli transcription then they move on to more complex prokarotic systems such as the lac operon. Then they cover the eukaryotic examples pointing out how they differ from the simple bacterial systems. This has always been a successful approach to teaching the basic concepts of transcription and transcription regulation. 1
Is the approach taken by the authors of The Virtual Cell Animation project better? I don't think so. What do you think? Does anyone out there teach transcription without introducing it first in bacteria?
Let's not forget my favorite example of biochemical misconceptions: the Citric Acid Cycle. Did you know that it's sometimes called the "tricarboxylic acid cycle" because three CO2 molecules are released for every pyruvate molecule? 2
The carboxylate groups on citrate, isocitrate etc. are shown as -COOH instead of COO- as in the textbooks. I don't know why they did this ... it leads to some extra protons being released in the reactions.
The authors make a very common mistake with succinate dehydrogenase. They show FADH2 as one of the products of the reaction whereas the IUBMB database shows that the real final product is QH2 [see Succinate Dehydrogenase]. I don't understand why biochemistry teachers can't check out a leading textbook (or the scientific literature) before producing a video.
Did you know that some of the reactions of glycolysis are irreversible? Check out the video on Glycolysis to find out which reactions have this interesting property. 3 There is no video on gluconeogenesis and that's surprising because the synthesis of glucose is far more important than glycolysis in most species.
I wonder if the editors of PLoS bothered to watch the videos or whether they just assumed that they were scientifically accurate and pedagogically sound? I'm guessing that they didn't see the need to review the videos and simply concentrated on whether all the words in the article were spelled correctly.
1. There's a separate video on the lac Operon. How many errors, flaws, or missed opportunities, can you spot?
2. Silly me. I always though it had something to do with the fact that two of the key intermediates (citrate and isocitrate) were tricarboxylic acids. Most of the others are dicarboxylic acids.
3. Maybe I'm quibbling. In my textbook I describe these reactions as "metabolically irreversible" because the activities of the enzymes are regulated. That's not the same as saying that the reactions are irreversible.