The Science of Sustainability

Arm Yourselves for the Upcoming (Genetics) Revolution

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A multipronged approach to increasing genetics understanding.

In the not too distant future, we’ll all have a map of our DNA in our hands. And lots of studies show that most of us are woefully unprepared for this latest genetic revolution. (See the links at the end for a selection of these studies.)

As a nation, we aren’t teaching the right genetics in our schools. And for those of us out of school, the situation is, if anything, even worse. By and large we lack the fundamental knowledge needed to properly interpret the avalanche of data headed our way.

Without this kind of knowledge, we are sure to get bamboozled by hucksters out there willing to sell us the “right” snake oil based on our DNA data. Even scarier, we may not make the right health decisions based on our DNA. And don’t necessarily count on your doctor for help navigating your way through these data. They are often as unprepared as the rest of us.

Chimeras are so cool! Sometimes these lines become apparent in chimeras under UV light.

This is a big reason that the Stanford at The Tech program has decided to publish the book, When Will Broccoli Taste like Chocolate? (you can buy it from Amazon here). It is a book that teaches genetics in a fun way by focusing on interesting cases and explaining the genetics behind them. Without even trying, you’ll get the solid footing you need to interpret your DNA. Or at the very least understand other people’s interpretations!

One of my favorite parts is the section on chimeras. Chimeras are fraternal twins who fused together at a very early stage of development. They are a single person who has one set of cells (and so one set of DNA) from one twin and another set of cells (and DNA) from the other twin.

These chimeras don’t have two heads and four arms or anything like that. In fact, their differences are usually so subtle that they are invisible to the naked eye. They are often revealed only after they take some sort of genetic test (like a paternity test or a tissue typing test to find a new organ). And then what a revelation! Often the tests come back saying the chimera is not the parent of his or her children.

Chimeras are a great way to learn about DNA, genes, genetic tests and so on. And as you’ll see in the excerpt below, once you add in a link to a CSI episode where a rapist almost gets away because he is a chimera, you end up with a fascinating read.

The story goes on to explain why a chimera isn't torn apart by its immune system, other ways besides chimeras to have multiple DNAs and lots more.

For parents and parents-to-be, there is a section on eye and hair color so they can understand how their children ended up with the coloring they got. For example, blue-eyed parents can breathe a sigh of relief if they have a green or brown eyed child because we show that despite what your high school biology teacher told you, this can and does happen. Parents-to-be can even use this information to predict what hair and eye color their children are most likely to have!

This person could have had blue eyed parents.

For people who want to know how embryos from different species decide whether to be a boy or a girl, there is a great section on Nemo the clownfish. And there is a cool section on all the genetic information we can get from poop. And…

Add to this book our Stanford at The Tech program that provides hands-on activities at The Tech Museum in San Jose (as well as at other venues) and our Understanding Genetics website, and you get a full frontal assault on the lack of genetics knowledge out there. We aim to demystify genetics and show how entertaining and interesting it really is. Perhaps a better title for the book might have been, When Will Genetics be like a Day at Disneyland?. That day may be here sooner than you think.

For fun, here is a quick quiz I whipped up to test your genetics IQ. To make things interesting, the first person to get them all right gets a free copy of When Will Broccoli Taste like Chocolate?. You can answer here, on Facebook or, if you’re like me and you’d rather use email, send your answers to askageneticist@thetech.org. Good luck and enjoy!

1) Should you necessarily be scared if you find out you are 10 times more likely to get a rare cancer?

2) If you look like your mom, are you more likely to get the diseases that run in her family or your dad’s family?

3) If you have the recessive disease sickle cell anemia, should your kids be tested to see if they are carriers?

4) If you look like your dad, did you get more of his DNA?

5) If you flip a coin and get heads ten times in a row, what are the chances that the next flip will be a head?

6) True or false: Each cell in your body has the same DNA.

Studies cataloging the public’s lack of genetics knowledge:

Australian study on public knowledge of human genetics and health
.

Misunderstandings concerning genetics among patients confronting genetic disease.

Essay contest reveals misconceptions of high school students in genetics content.

A comprehensive analysis of high school genetics standards: are states keeping pace with modern genetics?

You can buy the book from Amazon here.

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Category: Biology, Blog, Health

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Dr. Barry Starr

About the Author ()

Dr. Barry Starr is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • Human Genetics Journal

    thanks for sharing.

  • Barry

    Congratulations to Kirstin Huiber of Durham North Carolina who was the first to answer all the questions correctly. A copy of When Will Broccoli Taste Like Chocolate (link: http://genetics.thetech.org/book-titles) will be sent to her as her prize. Thanks everyone for playing.

    I intend to go over the quiz in a bit of detail in my next blog where I'll talk about my thinking and what I learned about writing these quizzes.