"Are you confused by all the talk about DNA and genes? We can help," claims the University of Utah. There is now no excuse for not knowing what stem cells do, what messenger RNA is, why SNPs are important, or about any other hot topic in the news about the latest biomedical research. University scientists are getting into the online communication game, although in many cases they are doing it awkwardly. What else do you expect from a bunch of pointy-headed, tweed-wearing, absent minded nerds?

The University of Utah has a web site called Learn Genetics. It's a site filled with animations that, if they were parodies, would rival the classroom informational films spoofs on the Simpsons, and Mr. Stem Cell could, with a little more sacrasm, be a character right out of South Park. Unfortunately, they're not spoofs.

But the site has some good stuff, especially the tour of the basics. There you can find great explanations (with lots of pictures and animations) of chromosomes, the basics of genetics - heredity and traits. If you can't remember much from high school biology class, 15 minutes on this site will get you up to speed. Once you've hit the basics, go check out the mouse brain on drugs.

Cold Spring Harbor labs is also getting into online education with DNA from the Beginning. It features, among other things, and animation of Gregor Mendel explaining flower sex. The site is organized into three sections - classical genetics, molecular biology/genetics, and some more modern genetic concepts, and each section has about a dozen basic topics with text, animations, and video clips of interviews with scientists. Except for Mendel explaining flower sex, this site doesn't try quite so hard to be cool the way they Utah site does. The information is fairly basic, but again, if you don't remember much from college or high school biology, this is a great, quick primer.

They do lie in one place - there is a section called 'RNA was the first genetic molecule.' We don't actually know that. There probably was a phase in the history of life where, instead of DNA and protein proto-cells got by with just RNA, but we don't really know that. It's possible, maybe even likely, that another genetic molecule existed before RNA.

The world's largest DNA sequencing institute, the Sanger Institute in the UK, has a site on genomes, Your Genome. Although they lie here too - they claim that "junk DNA refers to sequence regions with no known function," and that "the more we learn about what's in the 'junk', the more it seems better to call it 'noncoding DNA' instead." I don't know why some corners of the scientific community persist in this nonsense notion of junk DNA - it's a misunderstanding of the term junk DNA (as Ryan Gregory has pointed out, over and over), and anyone who think that most of the 900,000 LINE elements (21% of our genome - by contrast, protein-coding genes make up about 2% of our genome) are somehow functional is certifiably insane.

But the Sanger site does have some good stuff. The explanations aren't as basic, and the figures aren't as good as the two sites mentioned above, but they have a lot of good basic info on how and why we sequence genomes.

Finally, let's talk about Action Bioscience, which exists to promote bioscience literacy. It's a site with a bunch of short articles by scientists about genomics, conservation, biodiversity. The site has plenty of good stuff, but there's one problem: I'm not sure who the audience is supposed to be. They're promoting "bioscience literacy," but you already have to be "bioscience literate" to understand something like Environmental Metabolomics: The Study of Disease and Toxicity in Wildlife that starts out like this:

With the completion of the Human Genome Project, we have now truly entered the exciting era of post-genomics biology. Several new scientific disciplines have emerged of which metabolomics holds significant promise for the understanding and diagnosis of diseases both in humans and wildlife. This introduction to the new field of metabolomics will describe several applications of this approach for monitoring the health of organisms in the environment.

It's not too technical, but it's just technical enough (or, actually, it sounds more technical than it really is - they keep the concepts simple) to probably keep many casual readers away.

So, if you feel like you could get more of the articles here at Scientific Blogging if you just had a little more biology under your belt, you're in luck. This stuff may be dorky (so don't read it in front of your friend), but it will keep you from being in that embarrasing 40% of the population that doesn't know it's the father's genetic contribution that determines whether a child is a boy or a girl.