DNA - from structure to therapy

Prof. DPhil. Sebastian Springer and Dr. rer. nat. habil. Susanne Illenberger

Field/Discipline : Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Computer sciences

Language : Englisch

Institution : Jacobs University Bremen gGmbH

Course Description

This course explains one of the key molecules in life: Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA). DNA stores the genetic information in all living cells. The sequence of its building blocks defines both individual identity and species diversity. Changes in DNA can lead to cancer and other diseases. DNA-based technology is now used to detect and treat diseases.
In this course, we will take you on a journey from the DNA molecule to the development of novel therapies. We will first look at some historical aspects and key experiments such as how DNA was identified and proven to be the keeper of genetic information. We will then describe how DNA becomes duplicated (when cells divide) and how the genetic information stored on DNA is organized into genes. Next, we will explain how genes become transcribed into a messenger molecule (mRNA) and eventually translated into proteins that carry out the actual cellular functions. With this basic knowledge, we will then look at simple DNA-based techniques and how they are employed not just in basic research but also in everyday life: for the analysis of food, in crime scene investigations and forensics, for the diagnosis of genetic diseases, and for therapy development in modern molecular medicine. When students have completed the course, they will know a lot about structure, function, and uses of DNA, and they will understand the DNA-related words that are often used in the news (e.g. "gene", "mutation", "DNA fingerprint").
The course will be organized into 14 units of approx. 15 min each. The units will follow a common scheme with a short introductory sequence that discusses the importance of the topic covered. The main part of the lecture will have molecular models, power point animations, live drawings, and short lecture video sequences. At the end of each unit, we will provide a question catalogue and links to supporting material. Immediate self testing will be possible through multiple choice questions and interactive tasks. As homework, students will work on "open questions" in student-centered discussion groups. Open questions are based on but not restricted to the material covered in the course, and students will be encouraged to do their own reading to answer them.
The fourteen units comprise the following topics:

  1. How DNA is present in everyday life (DNA History I)
  2. DNA History II
  3. The structure and properties of DNA – DNA fingerprint
  4. Replication – the copying of DNA
  5. From DNA to Protein I - Transcription of Genes
  6. From DNA to Protein II - RNA processing
  7. From DNA to Protein III – translating the genetic code
  8. Methods I – making Genes visible
  9. Methods II – amplifying Genes
  10. Introduction to Genetic Diseases - Cancer
  11. Consequences of Mutations
  12. How to repair mutations?
  13. Muscular Dystrophies - when muscles die
  14. Stem Cell Therapies – replacing defective cells

Learning objectives

Participants will be able to answer the following questions after completing the course:
1. Why and how has DNA become one of the most powerful tools in research?
2. What exactly does gene therapy mean?
3. Why is it so hard to find a cure for cancer?
4. For which diseases may DNA-based technology help developing a therapy?
5. What are potentials and risks in gene-based medicine?

MOOC relevance

DNA is very prominent in our everyday life. It is featured in many news headlines, for example when genetically altered plants in food industry are hotly debated or when in forensics genetic fingerprints are employed, individual DNA sequences that allow identification of a single person among billions. Epidemics such as the swine flu or fatal diseases such as cancer make us readily call for new therapies. It often escapes the public's attention, however, that such advances in forensics and medicine also involve DNA-based technology. It is thus not surprising that many are uncertain what terms like "gene therapy", "genetic fingerprint" or "genetically-modified food" really mean.
As life scientists, we know how important genetic experiments are to elucidate biological questions. We also know that many non-scientists would love to learn more about DNA, genes, and how their manipulation affects our everyday life. Our course will be of interest both to (prospective) students but also to the general public who are interested in DNA and its applications but are not going through a university program. Hence, we have designed an introductory, first semester level course that will teach the basics about DNA as a molecule and how our understanding of its biology leads to therapeutic approaches aiming at the cure of fatal diseases. English as the teaching language will enable us to reach a world-wide audience.

Prior Knowledge

Participants that possess an interest in modern biomedical research will be able to grasp the key concepts without strong background knowledge. In order to pass the final exam, though, high school level knowledge in chemistry and biology will be advantageous when we draw chemical structures or address cell biological questions.


  • Multiple Choice Test
  • P2P-grading of assignments
  • Discussions / Q&A

Additional tools

• Readings and links to internet sources (e.g. movies)
• Other types of self-testing tools in each unit
• Glossaries will be provided in each unit to look up scientific words used

Use of online-tools

Multiple Choice Tests
at the end of each unit will give immediate and individual feedback to each participant.
Other types of self-testing tools in each unit:
Here, we envision interactive quizzes that allow more complex tasks than multiple choice tests such as Articulate Presenter and Raptivity interactions. Participants should actively answer a question, e.g. by identifying causal connections, building hierarchies or timelines, completing jigsaw puzzles etc. In these tests, short built-in comments will explain why an answer is correct or false.
of homework assignments will become more important during the second half of the course, once a certain level of knowledge is reached so that it will allow for science-based discussions. So called "open questions" will be posted by the instructors and answers will have to be found within a given period of time. The answers are then P2P graded.
Discussions / Q&A in course forum:
The course forum will be used in three ways:
First, we will aim to integrate the participants' main interests in the course by allowing for voting on different topics posted by the instructors at the beginning of the course. There will be a flexible element in the late units that can be readily adjusted to accommodate the students' topic requests.
Second, we will post "open questions" to the forum, and students can openly discuss and answer them. The best answers can be voted on by the participants. After a defined period of time (e.g. five days) the top 10 answers will be looked at and commented by the instructors. This will ensure the scientific correctness of the "best" answers identified in the poll.
Third, we will use the course forum for feedback. We envision a system in which students can vote on the quality of individual subunits.
In summary, we expect the - heterogeneous - participants to profit immensely from interaction with each other. Depending on their personal and cultural background, they will most likely have controversial views about several subtopics and we think that it will be very fruitful to openly discuss both the potential and limitations of genetic research. In addition, we hope that especially (prospective) students will assist the non-biologist fraction in understanding thereby deepening their own knowledge.
Readings and links to internet sources (e.g. movies):
This is additional material that we only expect those students to cover who aim for a final examination and course certificate. The additional material will be mainly provided for more in depth studies. With this additional information, we will on one hand reduce the material to be covered in the actual units, which will attract a broader audience. On the other hand, it allows for individual exam preparations.


• Horton Biochemistry
• Alberts Essential Cell Biology
• Becker The World of the Cell

Lectures by Applicants:
The lectures General Biochemistry and Cell Biology I+II as well as others have been recorded as support material for current students and may be used by participants to further deepen their understanding.
General BCCB I: http://www.faculty.jacobs-university.de/springer/GenBCCB/recordings/General_BCCB_I/
General BCCB II: http://www.faculty.jacobs-university.de/springer/GenBCCB/recordings/General_BCCB_II/
Cellular Biochemistry: http://www.faculty.jacobs-university.de/springer/CB/Lectures/

Other online sources such as e.g.:

Prof. DPhil. Sebastian Springer (Jacobs University Bremen gGmbH)



• 1985-1992 Study of Biochemistry (Diploma) in Tübingen, Germany.
• 1992-1996 DPhil at Oxford University with Alain Townsend (Biochemistry and Molecular Immunology)
• 1996-2001 Postdoctoral Fellow at University of California, Berkeley, with Randy Schekman (Biochemistry and Cell Biology)
• 2001 to date Assistant, then Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Jacobs University Bremen

Experimental work on the molecular mechanism of the antiviral immune response in mammals; on the intracellular transport of membrane proteins; on protein dynamics and protein-ligand interaction; and on the use of micrometer-sized capsules to deliver and measure small molecules.


Research in the Springer group:
Publications of the Springer group:

Dr. rer. nat. habil. Susanne Illenberger (Jacobs University Bremen gGmbH)



• Study of Biology (Diploma) at the University of Hannover, Germany.
• Diploma (MSc) received in 1992.
• 1993-1996 PhD at the Max-Planck-Unit for Structural Molecular Biology at DESY, Hamburg, Germany. Thesis: Investigations on the physiological phosphorylation of the microtubule-associated protein Tau.
• 1997-1998 Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max-Planck-Unit for Structural Molecular Biology at DESY, Hamburg, Germany
• 1998-2003 "scientific assistant" (C1) Technical University of Braunschweig
• 2003 Habilitation and Venia legendi for "Cell Biology", Technical University of Braunschweig. Title: "Investigations on the function and regulation of cytoskeleton-associated proteins"
• 2004-2007 "Privatdozentin", Technical University of Braunschweig
• Since 2007 University Lecturer (teaching position) in Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Jacobs University Bremen gGmbH