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  • What makes me, me? My genes or my environment?

    How we look and act is the result of the interaction of our genes with our environment. Even identical twins, with an identical genetic make-up, have unique phenotypes. Find out what makes each of us unique.

    Take a closer look at the people around you. Chances are you’ll recognise that, while you share many features in common with them, there are other features and behaviours they have that are quite different from yours. For example, we all have 2 eyes but they come in many different colours and shapes.

    Why are we the way we are?

    Apart from identical twins, each of us has a unique genetic make-up that provides the instructions for our growth and development. However, how you look and act (your phenotype) is actually a result of the interaction between your genetic make-up and your environment.

    Some of these interactions happen before we’re even born, during embryonic development. Other influences, including environmental factors such as diet, can shape your appearance and behaviour as you develop from baby to child to adult.

    In our collection of resources, we explore two fundamental questions:

    • Why are we the way we are?
    • How does this happen?

    Meet our scientists

    We meet 4 scientists who are actively involved in research to learn more about the interactions between genetic and environmental factors:

    • Peter Dearden is the director of Genetics Otago. He is working to better understand how genes influence embryonic development. In his experiments, he turns genes on and off in flies – with some interesting results! Learn more about Peter's research in the article The genotype/phenotype connection. The article Genotype and phenotype further explains this fascinating concept.
    • Christine Jasoni hopes to improve people’s lives through understanding brain development. Learn more about her research into how environmental factors affect this complex organ.
    • Rachael Taylor is an expert in childhood obesity. Her research focuses on the environmental factors that affect our weight. The student activity, Obesity risk factors is a simulation that demonstrates how both genetic make-up and environmental factors influence an individual's likelihood of becoming obese.
    • Julia Horsfield works with zebrafish as a model organism in her highly specialised lab. Her research into cohesin proteins is significant for both human developmental disease and cancer. Proteins have many roles in the human body and different combinations of genes build these proteins to perform specialised functions.

    Explore the science, then take up the challenge

    The articles DNA, chromosomes and gene expression and Meiosis, inheritance and variation take a closer look inside our cells to explain some of the ideas fundamental to finding out what makes each of us unique.

    The student activities have been designed to address common alternative conceptions about genetics.

    Genetics: true or false? can be combined with Genetics web quest and used at the start and/or end of a genetics unit.

    Family resemblance: traits through generations involves the whole class and helps to illustrate the basic processes by which genetic information is passed from one generation to the next.

    And of course, any teaching resource about DNA needs a link to forensics, so do try out DNA detective!

    Question bank

    The Uniquely me – question bank provides a list of questions about how unique we as humans are and places where their answers can be found. The questions support an inquiry approach.

    Key terms

    For explanations of some of the key concepts, see Uniquely me – key terms.


    The timeline - Fertilisation to adulthood - gives information on the key stages in the development of a human.

      Published 18 May 2011, Updated 13 December 2016 Referencing Hub articles
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