TIPS: Targeted Interventions for Proficiency in Science
Main Site »
Contact Us
Tips Home
Middle School »
High School »
Life Science

Content Benchmark L.8.A.4
home / life science / heredity /

Life Science
Structure of Life
Organisms and Their Environment
Diversity of Life
Content Areas
Nature of Science (NOS)
Life Science
Earth Science
Physical Science

Students know some characteristics of an organism are the result of a combination of interaction with the environment and genetic information. E/S

All organisms have characteristics that make them unique. Even organisms that are identical to each other genetically are not necessarily identical in every way. This is because conditions and elements of the environment affect the expression of some genetic characteristics. Organisms are shaped by a complex interaction of environmental influences and genetics. Environmental influences include nutrition, habitat, amount of exercise, chemical composition of the organism, experience, learning, and other factors.

Genetic Influences
Through heredity, we inherit characteristics from our parents. Inherited characteristics are passed from parents to offspring through DNA. The pieces of DNA that code for specific traits are called genes.

For detailed information on the role genetics on heredity, see MS TIPS Benchmark L.8.A.1

To read more about genes, and how characteristics are determined by both genetics and by the environment, see

Environmental Influences and Multifactorial Traits

Inheritance alone does not determine everything about us. For example, good care and nutrition may help us to grow bigger and taller than either of our parents. An example of this height differential was documented in Japanese immigrants to the United States in the 1930s. Second generation Japanese immigrants were taller than their counterparts in Japan. The growth differential was primarily due to migration into an area which provided an improvement in diet and healthcare.

To read more about this and other genetic mechanisms, see excerpt in Patterns of Human Growth, second edition, by Barry Bogin. A summary of the Japanese immigrant height study is found at the following link

Figure 1: Inheriting Features from Parents.

Many traits are “multifactorial.” This means that several factors contribute to the expression of a trait. These factors are both genetic and environmental. To read more about multifactorial traits, see

Table 1. Inherited Human Traits Influenced by the Environment

Genetic Factors
Environmental Factors
Type 1 Diabetes Primarily a genetic condition related to the ability to produce insulin Influenced by environmental factors such as toxins taken into the body that can damage the pancreas
Type 2 Diabetes Complicated interplay of genetics and the environment Lifestyle factors such as diet and obesity may trigger some of the genetic elements that cause Type 2 diabetes
Skin Cancer Influenced by genetic factors, such as the skin's melanin levels and ability to repair damaged DNA Exposure to high levels of ultraviolet radiation can promote its development
Height Mainly determined by genes determining bone length and bone mineral mass Adequacy of nutrition plays a role
Weight Genetic factors play a role in appetite, nutritional intake, and metabolism Influenced by nutrition and physical activity
Muscularity Genetics contribute to muscle fiber composition and size, and how skeletal muscle uses oxygen Physical training influences oxygen utilization and muscle fiber size and volume

Table 1 above is designed to be included with an activity that involves viewing the video entitled NOVA scienceNOW: Obesity. This chart can be useful in discussions that can help students understand the interactions between genetics and environment.

Disease investigation is one particular area of study that can help students understand the interactions between inherited traits and the environment. There are some diseases which result solely from genetic factors regardless of the environment. However, many diseases such as cancers, asthma, and Type II diabetes, result when genetics and the environment interact. A person may be genetically predisposed for diabetes, but because their diet is controlled, they may never suffer from that disease.

To learn more about how environment and genetics interact to influence health, see National Institutes of Health’s Fact Sheet: Genes, Behavior, the Environment, and Health at

A similar paper, Gene-Environment Interaction Fact Sheet from the Center for Disease Control can be found at

New discoveries about the human genome are made everyday. It is now known that many diseases and behaviors are linked to genes. For example, a correlation exists between family history, genetics, and addictions such as alcoholism. Several genes have been linked to addiction. However, just because a person may have one of these genes, he or she will not necessarily become addicted to alcohol or drugs. Social and environmental conditions contribute major risks for these addictions.

To learn more about genetics and addiction, see

Learned and Innate Behaviors
The influence of environment on behavior can be observed in animals, where behaviors are either innate or learned. An innate behavior is one that exists from birth or is inborn. Innate characteristics are inherited and are present at birth. Innate behavior is pre-programmed. Some examples of innate knowledge or behavior are: hatching from an egg, suckling, weaving a web, migration, and hibernation.

To learn more about innate behavior, see

Learned behavior can be altered as a result of experience and or environment. Sometimes the difference between innate behavior and learned behavior is referred to as nature versus nurture. Nature refers to the characteristics that an organism is born with. Nurture refers to behavior learned through personal experience.

To learn more about learned behavior, see

Genetic Changes
Genetic changes occur randomly. Sometimes the changes make an organism more suitable to a given environment. If a genetic change enables an organism to survive better, that particular organism will survive and pass on its traits. For more information on mutations and their possible effects, see MS TIPS Benchmark L.8.A.2. Over time, a population of organisms may change. This is called evolution and is explored within MS TIPS Benchmark L.8.D.3.

Twins, Clones and Epigenetics
Clones and identical twins are not really identical. Even though clones and identical twins arise from exactly the same DNA, the environment and other factors will affect expression of traits.
To learn more about cloning, see

Much research has been done on twins to investigate the influence of genetics and of environment on expression of traits, especially behavioral traits. These studies often conclude that both environment and DNA interact in the expression of traits.

To read more about several twin studies, reference the following university-based twin research programs at, and

Physical characteristics of twins provide excellent examples of how the environment affects the expression of traits. Even though identical twins arose from identical DNA, many characteristics are different. For example, the fingerprints of identical twins, although similar, are not identical.

Figure 2. Comparing Fingerprints.

For a brief explanation as to why the fingerprints may be different, see

The fingerprints a and c above are from twins. Notice that although
very similar, they are not identical. The fingerprint in b is also similar,
but unrelated to a and c.

In addition to the environment affecting the expression of genes, some genes can be activated or inactivated. This is called epigenetics (middle school students should not be taught about epigenetics other than showing and explaining a few examples of non-identical clones). For example, the coloring of calico cats is a result of genes that code for orange and genes that code for black fur. In each body cell, the orange and black genes are randomly turned on or off, resulting in a unique pattern of color for each individual. Observe the picture of the two cats in Figure 3. CC is a clone of Rainbow but the two cats do not look the same due to the different patterns of color. No two organisms, even clones, will be exactly the same due to the interaction of genes with the environment.

Figure 3. Cloned kitten.

To learn more about epigenetics, see

back to top

Content Benchmark L.8.A.4

Students know some characteristics of an organism are the result of a combination of interaction with the environment and genetic information. E/S

Common misconceptions associated with this benchmark

1.Some students believe that acquired characteristics can be inherited.

An 18th century French naturalist, Jean-Baptiste Lamark (as well as many scientists and philosophers before him) was a proponent of this theory of evolution that states that acquired traits can be inherited. The belief was that some characteristics of an organism changed over the organism’s lifetime, and these acquired traits would be passed on to offspring. The classic example often cited in student texts regards the giraffe’s neck. The theory of inheritance by acquired traits states that a giraffe had to stretch its neck to reach leaves in the highest tree branches. Because of the continual stretching, a giraffe’s neck grew longer, and this longer neck characteristic was passed to the giraffe’s offspring.

To read more about Lamark, see

The modern understanding of evolution is that traits are passed from generation to generation via the DNA (genome) of reproductive cells. Adaptations of a body part due to use or non-use do not cause changes in these reproductive cells. Acquired traits do not affect the genome of an organism and it is the genome that is passed to offspring by the parent organism.

For a detailed explanation of the modern theory of evolution see

2.Some students believe that variation between species is the result of a change in an organism’s environment, not due to inheritance.

Bears live in many different environments around the world. Bears with white fur, such as polar bears live where there is a lot of snow and ice. Black and brown bears live in forested areas. These particular characteristics have enabled bears to survive in particular environments. The bears that had genetic characteristics that helped them survive where able to live and reproduce. The genetic characteristics which enabled them to survive were passed on to their offspring. The characteristics which helped a particular organism to survive better than another were caused by random changes in the DNA, not changes in the characteristics themselves. A polar bear’s fur will not turn brown if they are moved from the snowy regions to a non snowy region. Nor will a brown bear turn white if moved to a snowy region. Animals, such as these bears, have adaptations, camouflage for example, that enable them to survive in particular environments. The organisms that survive are able to reproduce and pass on their traits to their offspring.

To read more about animal camouflage, see

To learn some interesting middle school level facts about animals and color, see

To watch a video clip of a classroom in which the teacher uses plants to help students explore the variation and discuss adaptation, see

3.Some students believe that use or non-use of an organ will affect how that organ works in future generations.

This misconception has lead to some interesting science-fiction type scenarios. Some examples of this misconception are suggestions such as the human brain will become bigger and bigger as we learn to use it more, or humans will soon be born with no appendix and no wisdom teeth because they are often removed and are not needed. Dr. Barry Starr, a geneticist at Stanford University wrote a short, easy to read article discussing the use – non use misconception.

Dr. Starr’s article can be accessed at

back to top

Content Benchmark L.8.A.4

Students know some characteristics of an organism are the result of a combination of interaction with the environment and genetic information. E/S

Sample Test Questions

1st Item Specification: Distinguish between innate and learned behaviors.

Depth of Knowledge Level 1

  1. An innate behavior is
    1. learned over the course of an organism’s life.
    2. influenced only by the environment.
    3. inherited from an organism’s parents.
    4. learned to ensure an organism’s survival.
  1. A spider can weave a perfect web the very first time it tries, because it is born with this ability. This behavior is an example of a(n)
    1. learned behavior.
    2. environmental influence.
    3. innate behavior.
    4. codominant trait.

Depth of Knowledge Level 2

  1. Genetically identical twins that are separated at birth and grow up in different environments tend to share some but not all behaviors. What would be the best explanation for this phenomenon?         
    1. Identical twins will share some behaviors because not all behaviors are learned.
    2. Behaviors are inherited, so genetically identical twins will share all behaviors.
    3. It is a coincidence that the identical twins have some behaviors in common.
    4. Identical twins have a psychological bond that causes similar behaviors.
  1. Animals kept in captivity, such as those in zoos, are provided with all of their basic needs, including food. Wild dogs, such as wolves, born in captivity cannot survive if released into the wild, because they cannot hunt. Wild cats, such as cougars, born in captivity can survive and will hunt if released into the wild. What is the best explanation for this phenomenon?
    1. Hunting is an innate behavior in all animals.
    2. Hunting is an innate behavior in wild cats, but not in wild dogs.
    3. Both wild cats and wild dogs must learn to hunt from their parents.
    4. Wild cats learn to hunt from their parents and wild dogs do not.

2nd Item Specification: Describe physical traits are inherited and influenced by the environment.

Depth of Knowledge Level 1

  1. Which of the following characteristics are most likely inherited from your parents and not influenced by the environment?
    1. Height
    2. Weight
    3. Eye color
    4. Skin color
  1. Which of the following is least affected by seasonal changes in the environment?
    1. Sprouting of new grass
    2. Leaves dropping from the trees
    3. Migration of butterflies
    4. The stripes on a zebra
  1. Which of the following will have the greatest affect on how tall a baby giraffe will grow?
    1. The giraffe’s weight at birth.
    2. The spot pattern of the giraffe at birth.
    3. The type of food available for the giraffe.
    4. The amount the giraffe has to stretch to reach its food.

Depth of Knowledge Level 2

  1. Many animals that live near the north pole are white. White is a helpful adaptation for animals living near the North Pole because it
    1. absorbs more heat from the sun.
    2. provides camouflage for the environment.
    3. helps the animals run faster.
    4. makes the animals feel more comfortable.
  1. Plant A, B, and C are genetically identical, but they all differ in height. What is the best explanation for this?
    1. The size of the seeds caused the plants to grow to different heights.
    2. The plants grew to the same height and then shrunk to different sizes.
    3. The height of the plants is affected by something other than genetics.
    4. The plants came from parents that differed in height.
  1. There is some evidence that the average human is taller now than they were hundreds of years ago. Which of the following is the best explanation for this?
    1. Humans now stretch and exercise more, which causes an increase in height.
    2. Human health and nutrition is better now and contributes to taller growth.
    3. Shorter humans were survived better and reproduced more in the past.
    4. Taller humans have more children and their children have more children.

Constructed Response L.8.A.4

  1. Genetically identical twins named Jane and Sue were born in China, which is a third world country. They were given up for adoption by their mother. Jane was adopted by a family in America and had all of the proper food and nutrients as she grew. Sue was never adopted and lived in a Chinese orphanage throughout her childhood. Sue did not receive the proper food and nutrition that she needed, because the orphanage had very little money.
    1. Identify two physical characteristics that would be the same between Jane and Sue. Explain why these traits would be the same.
    2. Identify two physical characteristics that would be different between Jane and Sue. Justify your answer why the traits would be different.

back to top

Content Benchmark L.8.A.4

Students know some characteristics of an organism are the result of a combination of interaction with the environment and genetic information. E/S

Answers to Sample Test Questions

  1. C, DOK level 1
  2. C, DOK level 1
  3. A, DOK level 2
  4. B, DOK level 2
  5. C, DOK level 1
  6. D, DOK level 1
  7. C, DOK level 1
  8. B, DOK level 2
  9. C, DOK level 2
  10. B, DOK level 2

Constructed Response L.8.A.4 Score Rubric:


3 points


 Response addresses all parts of the question clearly and correctly.

Jane and Sue have the same DNA, so physical characteristics that are determined only by genes would be the same between them. Examples may include eye or hair color, and nose or eye shape would be the same between Jane and Sue because those characteristics are determined solely by genes. Physical characteristics that are influenced by the environment will not be the same between Jane and Sue. For example, height and weight are not only determined by genes, but also depends on nutrition. Since Sue did not receive the proper nutrition as a child, she will most likely be shorter and thinner than Jane. Skin color is another characteristic affected not only by genes, but by the amount of sunlight a person’s skin is exposed to. Most likely, Jane and Sue will not have the same shade of skin, because they will not have been exposed to the same amount of sunlight.

2 points

 Response addresses all parts of the question and includes only minor errors.

1 point

 Response does not address all parts of the question.

0 points

 Response is totally incorrect or no response provided.

back to top

Content Benchmark L.8.A.4

Students know some characteristics of an organism are the result of a combination of interaction with the environment and genetic information. E/S

Intervention Strategies and Resources

The following is a list of intervention strategies and resources that will facilitate student understanding of this benchmark.

1. NOVA scienceNOW: Obesity

This website contains a video and several related activities which can be used to learn about the interactions between genetics and the environmental influences on obesity. The site has pre and post viewing activities, and the 12 minute video can be watched online. Although the video and the activities deal predominately with obesity they can be incorporated as a relevant lesson to help students understand the connections between genetics and environment. Some of the activities may be difficult for middle school students, but the post-viewing activity on “Nature vs. Nurture” is especially appropriate for use when studying this benchmark.

The video and activities can be accessed at

2. Pets: Oh Behave

This lesson which takes students through a series of activities related to training pets can help students develop an understanding of how innate behaviors, learned behaviors and the environment all play a role in determining behavior.

The site can be accesses at

3. A Nature and Nurture Walk in Mendel Park

This is a short interactive activity from the American Museum of Natural History. In the on-line activity, students solve a riddle by answering questions about whether specific characteristics are due to nature or nurture or both.

To access this activity visit

4. Exploring Learned and Innate Behavior

This activity allows students to explore the differences between learned and innate behavior among humans and monkeys. Students read articles and visit websites and then answer questions about various ways humans and monkeys communicate, use tools, etc. Throughout the activity, students are prompted to think about what is innate and what is learned behavior.

The activity can be accessed at

back to top

Support Pages

Click Here
Sample Questions:
Click Here

Intervention Strategies & Resources:
Click Here

Benchmark Related Vocabulary