Genetics For Dummies
    By Michael White | March 25th 2009 03:00 AM | 8 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Welcome to Adaptive Complexity, where I write about genomics, systems biology, evolution, and the connection between science and literature,


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    "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.


    Many thanks, I was just going to ask!
    Have you seen this?
    I would love your comments about it

    I like PZ Myers' comments on the issue:
    There's a deeper problem here than the simple superficial fact that we've got influential people trying to push nonsense into science classrooms. It's that somehow, we have a system that gives flaming incompetents this kind of power — that we willingly hand over important decisions about the education of our children to people who aren't qualified, who have no understanding of science, and who want prioritize a page and a half of vague, poetic metaphor from a ragged old hodge-podge of a book of mythology over the concrete, well-tested, and well-documented body of modern scientific information.

    I don't know why Texas (or other states for that matter, but Texas is one of the worst repeat offenders) puts decisions like this in the hands of people who simply have no comprehension of the vast amount of successful research published by evolutionary biologists every month.
    Now if only the Texans had elected Kinky Friedman as governor ....
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Excellent - I see he supports the "dewussification" of Texas. I love his platform:
    "I am not anti-death penalty, but I'm damn sure anti-the-wrong-guy-getting-executed."

    About being Governor: "How Hard Could It Be?"

    At least put him on the board of education.

    the problem is not that they aren't aware of or comprehend the research or the science, the problem is that they don't believe it. science has no credit if it contradicts the scripture. texas, and the rest of the world, isn't dealing with rational logic. you will never change any creationists' beliefs unless they are already questioning their beliefs on their own. the debate is futile with those people. the only way of keeping their zealous hunger for more christian minds out of public schools is to enforce and educate about why there is a need for church and state.

    they've never experienced having their religion threatened as a majority group. if they understood what it would be like if catholics won the majority and then all public schools had to teach about purgatory and penance, there would be a lot of protestants going bezerk.

    keeping religion out of public schools and public policies is NOT an affront to religion, but rather it is there to protect it.

    the problem is not that they aren't aware of or comprehend the research or the science, the problem is that they don't believe it. 
    I think it's both. You'd be hard-pressed to find a creationist member of the Texas school board who could coherently explain the science that's being objected to. They know in advance they don't believe it, so they don't bother trying to understand it.
    keeping religion out of public schools and public policies is NOT an affront to religion, but rather it is there to protect it.
    Amen! That was the view of James Madison and many of the other founders - religion does better when left free of state interference.  Baptists and other denominations, now more dominant in our society, were more supportive of this idea way back when they were a small minority.
    The problem is that fundamentalists see any teaching of evolution in public schools as a threat to their beliefs.  At the same time, strangely enough, many of them think that non-Christians are wrong to see the imposition of Christian school prayers on non-Christian students as a threat.

    I hope you survive these meetings! It seems that creationism is like racism: some bad concepts are hard to get rid of. I am, moreover, pretty irritated at fundamentalists for telling God how and when to create anything and which version of God is the good one. Now most of these people want to reach paradise with their dog or cat, which is not provided by their sacred texts: so maybe they can accept a little less literal there. Sigh.

    Anybody who believes that Adam was cast out of Eden because he ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge is going to be anti-knowledge.  Eve saw 'that the tree was desired to make one wise'.  It was only after eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge that they knew how to sew leaves to make aprons.  Now, that isn't exactly rocket science, so they must have been pretty dumb.

    Given:  God created all kinds of vegetation before He created Adam and Eve.
    Given: Adam and Eve had no knowledge until after they ate the forbidden fruit.
    Query:  How come they managed to stay alive, since they could not have known what was edible and what was poisonous?

    I'll stick with evolution, thanks.