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Should we get back to base-ics — A, C, G, and T?

Fyodor Urnov, associate adjunct professor, molecular and cell biology | September 17, 2010

Dear students,

What is your first reaction to this:  Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi?

If you answered: “I don’t speak Latin, and neither do you, Professor” — you are correct.

That said, this amusingly elitist phrase means: “there are certain things that only certain types of people – the gods, the kings, the rich and powerful – are allowed to do; the common people are not allowed to do such things.”

(“What is appropriate for Jupiter is not appropriate for the bull” is the verbatim translation, found using Larry and Sergey’s search engine; fortunately no one told them back when they were sitting in their garage that being common people they should not try to do big things).

It was written over 2,000 years ago, and serves as an introduction to a more serious question:

What do you think your Berkeley professors should be teaching you?

Consider the “classical” languages. One hundred years ago, when Jane Sather endowed the construction of the famous gate, they would have been part of your “basic training,” along with algebra! Every educated person in the 19th century could read Greek and Latin. In 2010 – o tempora, o mores! (“the way things are today is really scary!”) – this seems as useful as an 8-track tape deck in the age of the iPod.

OK, then. If not Latin – is there such a thing any more as “what every college-educated person should know”?

A simple argument in favor of a “yes” answer goes like this. The story of the Tower of Babel reminds us that one way to make a society dysfunctional is deprive people of the ability to communicate, and thus work towards a common good. The idea of a “common language” does not end at universal literacy in reading and writing, though. A sustainable society must share a set of “truths held self-evident.” Some of these, such as the pursuit of happiness, are instinctive. Others must be taught – as widely as possible.

Jasper Rine ended his lecture with a provocative and exciting proposal in that regard:

“We should teach basic Genetics in the Greek theatre to every freshman!”

Part of the argument in support of his idea is as follows. We do not have a health care system in the US, prof. Rine reminded us – we have a sick care system. We spend nearly 20% of our GDP on this sick care. The situation is not improving (take a look at this: – be sure to watch the animation on this page).

Literacy in Genetics offers a component of a solution: in principle, embedded in our DNA is a personalized prescription for well-being. Here is a specific example that prof. Rine provided. Analysis of his DNA provided a detailed “genetic diagnosis” of his chances of breaking down life-saving medicines too fast to be useful. Now. In less than 10 years, such “pharmacogenomics” will be as routine as a thermometer to measure temperature; prof. Rine reminded us that Craig Venter and James Watson were once the elite few “Jupiters” who could afford this, but not any more. Personalized genomics is available now, and becoming more and more affordable to us common folk. For this “to each — their genome!” approach to work as a public health measure, though, we will need not just appropriately educated physicians, but also patients capable of understanding what the physician says. “Now, Miss Chen, on the short arm of the 1st chromosome, you have a particular form of a gene that means you’ll need to eat more leafy green vegetables than an average person …”

[This is not futuristic – Google the word “Pubmed” and then type the following secret access code into the search box that comes up: 18523009]

Asking yours truly if Genetics should be taught more broadly is like asking a koala if we should plant more eucalyptus trees. By way of acknowledging this bias, here are some questions for you, dear students:

If you were a Visual Arts major, scared of calculus and not all that into chemistry, yet had to take a Genetics class – what would you want to learn from it?

Future physicians: Genetics 001 – thumbs up or thumbs down?

And anyway, shouldn’t we be teaching every freshman “Smart Investing 101” instead?

Do you think that understanding our “common language” as a nation has to include the ability to understand the language of DNA?

Comments to “Should we get back to base-ics — A, C, G, and T?

  1. Fyodor:

    “a pessimist is a well-informed optimist.” is much like saying you are a gout patient yourself.

    You are right when you raised the tobaco statistics. However, I think nivi has got a good point when she raised about the “common language” of a nation.

    Its simply not easy to undermine.

  2. Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi

    “there are certain things that only certain types of people – the gods, the kings, the rich and powerful – are allowed to do; the common people are not allowed to do such things”

    You began your post with this deep phrase and what immediately came to my mind was not whether or not genetics should be taught at the freshman level across all campuses but the fate of those who do not have access to the wonderful education at Cal or other colleges.

    In my mind, the former, that is, the question of whether or not genetics should be taught to everyone, is a given. Of course it should be. But the latter, how to provide access to the understanding of this information, which, in every instance is powerful information, is not as easy to grapple with. Who are the “common people” here? Is it those who cannot afford to go to college? Is it those who have already left education and are working? Is it those who are not blessed with professors and people who work in the field to explain to them the nuances of their personalized genome (for example, that they are only being tested for the most prevalent variants of certain genes and they still might be at risk for a particular disease)? The question then becomes: How do we intelligently educate the vast portion of the population who do not have access to this knowledge and are forced to resort to hysterically googling their questions?

    One solution might be to put a large amount of resources into increasing the number of genetic counselors available to discuss your personalized genome with you once you have it. In an ideal world, one could imagine a situation where immediately after getting your genome sequenced you drive over to the neighborhood genetic counselor to discuss your results, assuage your fears or worries, and calmly decide the best course of preventative medicine. To get an entire generation in a position where each one of us can understand our genome is a daunting task indeed. But there are numerous solutions and it is my hope that one of these will be brought to fruition. The future is approaching far faster than we can imagine and it would behoove us to be prepared.

    P.S. I too have been wondering whether there we a correlation between obesity and income. The following journal articles seem to suggest that as one grows older, income plays less of a role but there is a strong correlation between childhood obesity and low-income families. Further kudos should go to First Lady Obama for focusing her campaign on childhood obesity.
    PMID: 19629026
    PMID: 20864702

    • Shivani — your comment provides much food for thought, calories from which fuel a desire to do something constructive about the issue you raised. This summer, I discussed in Biochemistry class one consequence of “hysterical googling” (thank you, nicely put) — the completely-data-unsupported movement to use mercury chelation therapy as a “treatment” for autism. A student wrote to me to say that in her post-college job as an “early interventionist,” she plans to advise every parent of an autistic child against treating them with this snake oil. Knowledge is, indeed, power. More broadly, I agree with you — genetic counselling for all who want it is a great goal to strive for. Prof Rine spoke about the connections between DNA and nutrition — an area where a personalized, intelligent recommendation could lead to a lifetime of improved health.

  3. Up until quite recently I had dreaded the very thought of taking an upper division genetics course on the basis that I shuddered to think of what it might do to my GPA (pathetic I know). Being a Conservation Resource Studies major, I could potentially graduate with a biological degree without ever needing to take a single course in genetics, and so combined with my fear I had not intended on taking one. However this past summer I started to work in a lab where I learned how to do PCR reactions and sequence DNA for a project that involves comparing the hemoglobin of high altitude hummingbirds to those that inhabit lowland ecosystems. However, I quickly found myself asking questions like, “How do mutations occur?” and “How could these adaptations in hummingbirds evolve?” When I began to look at the literature on the subject I realized that I was unfamiliar with the language that the papers had been written in. Having not had any exposure to genetics since my AP Biology class of high school my comprehension of the subject was completely inadequate, and consequently so was my ability to understand the literature. Soon after that my telebears appointment came up and I decided to sign up for MCB 140, and I must say that I am far from dissatisfied. The class is difficult, yes, will it lower my GPA, probably, but I know already by the end of this semester I will have gained a better understanding of a subject that today, is the very backbone of evolutionary biology. It is now my belief that any student that intends on pursuing a career in any of the biological sciences should take an in depth course in genetics. Why? Because in this day of age it is to biology what mathematics is to engineering: it is the now the language of biology, and it provides a basis for much of the phenomena that is observed in the natural world.

    Furthermore, I thank you Professor Urnov for 1. this article, and 2. Your enthusiasm for the subject. I can tell from both this article and from your lectures that you take pride in your craft. I look forward to the rest of your lectures this semester.

    • Jackie — you will be pleased to hear that your wonderfully stated “genetics is to biology what mathematics is to engineering” (thank you for this, by the way) is a perspective shared by many scientists of great note. Salvador Luria, who discovered restriction (arguably the basis of the most impactful biotechnological discovery of all time), wrote an amazing book called “Thirty six lectures in biology” (I learned about it from Prof. Rine) — it covers everything from the thermodynamics of the living cell to embryogenesis — and in the preface he says, “Genetics is the natural center of the presentation.”

  4. William F Buckley gave this interesting translation, obviously not word for word: “But, you’re not Marilyn Monroe.” I imagine the conversation, back in his day would have gone: “Marilyn Monroe does such and so!” “Yeah, but you’re not Marilyn Monroe.” A nuanced difference. Also, I think it is a sad mistake to have stopped teaching Greek and Latin, for many of the reasons you give in your article.


    • Frater (Latin for “brother” — do I have that right?) — thank you for the pointer to Buckley’s translation. A “New York Diary” entry in the Times a while ago had a wonderful story about a lady simply cutting into a line ahead of a bunch of people, one of whom said, “Oh, who does she think she is — Lauren Bacall?!!” She turned out to be, yes, Lauren Bacall (folks of a younger generation may be unfamiliar with Ms Bacall — “The Big Sleep” is a famous film noir with her in the main role). I was born and raised in a society that preached egalitarianism (the anthem of the Paris Commune was “Le Internationale” which has a famous lyric — “Nous ne sommes rien, soyons tout” — “today, we are nothing, let us be everything”). I personally would yield the line to Lauren Bacall, and good heavens, if Norma Jean Baker were around, I am sure she would be treated like the star that she is. Having said that, my alma mater, Moscow State, was founded by a man (Lomonosov) whose life was a rags-to-brilliance story, and I will admit to having a strong egalitarian streak in me. I personally find it inspiring and significant, for instance, that nearly 40% of the UC undergraduates receive Pell grants ( ).
      Calvin Bridges — one of the founders of modern genetics — and Nettie Stevens, who discovered the sex chromosomes — came from very, very humble backgrounds.
      On the subject of “classical languages,” I would have loved to have learned Greek and Latin well enough to appreciate the music of Homer’s and Virgil’s hexameter… To me personally, the inability to read classical poetry in the original is saddening.

  5. I do not believe mandating course would be beneficial. It brings to mind the idiom, “You can lead a horse to water,…” Speaking for myself, I know that having to take an AC class didn’t really enrich my cultural appreciation of the diverse groups of America. It was a class I resented, and therefore didn’t devote effort to learning from.
    In regards to the sick care, and making people more educated about genetics, the risk group for problems like heart disease or lung cancer is the lower socio-economic demographic. One doesn’t see many obese rich people (plenty of whom are ignorant). The poor fall into the junk food health trap, not because they are ignorant to their genetic risks for things like obesity or heart disease, but because they can’t afford fresh vegetables or fruit. While education is always important, I think policy issues like “organic produce stamps” would be a better solution.

    • Victor — thank you for a dose of healthy skepticism.

      Three former students of mine — by way of (one hopes!) representative examples that provide a modicum of hope for the future here:

      (i) one who took Biochemistry, and worked at the Berkeley farmer’s marker, explaining to everyone passing by, WHY more spinach and less bacon is a good thing;
      (ii) one who learned about the genetics of human immunological identity, and then became a volunteer for the national bone marrow donor registry (incidentally: );
      (iii) one whose father has gout, and who explained to him the logic behind keeping to a low-purine diet in a way that had a positive impact on his father’s lifestyle (remarkably, more so than requests to keep to that from the father’s physician!).

      The point you make is an important one, though: if Genetics 001 is to succeed, care must be taken to not create an allergic reaction in freshmen by cramming hydrogen bonds and the word “polymorphism” down their throats. Genetics has a lot of visceral appeal, fortunately, and DNA is easy to make fun even to a hard-core liberal art-ist.

      PS. Are there statistics from the CDC that look at likelihood of becoming obese as a function of household income? Is there, in fact, a negative correlation as you suggest? Sorry, as an experimental scientist, I am a huge fan of hard data rather than “one does not see etc”-type statements.

  6. Professor Urnov,
    I read through Professor Rine’s blog and your added thoughts and as I was reading through them I couldn’t help but question, if we are able to receive this “personalized prescription” to personal health and well being, isn’t that like “playing God”? What sort of consequences will there be if everyone is able to live longer than they would otherwise because of this information? What about natural selection? What will happen to our ever-increasing population? Just a thought. See you in class!

    • Megan — whether we should let “nature take its course” is an interesting question. KIf we keep everyone healthier based on DNA, won’t the population of Earth skyrocket? Note that no one made that argument to Edward Jenner, Alexander Fleming, Selman Waksman, and Jonas Salk (one of those names is doubtless familiar to you — the other three I promise you are fun to look up, but please don’t use the first hit on Google — use Pubmed Books instead — for example, ). Their work has made a bigger impact on longevity than DNA can ever hope to in the next few decades. That said, I think improvements for their own sake can be self-serving: a more comfortable armchair can be built that has a slot for the TV remote and a can of beer, and the result is a population that soon may look like something out of Wall-E (ie, people are having more “fun” but can no longer move around). I genuinely share Prof. Rine’s enthusiasm for DNA analysis as a vehicle for healthier living, starting with nutrition: folks who lead longer, healthier, vibrant lives will I am hopeful keep Mother Earth ticking for millenia to come. This is something that Genetics 001 can teach, I am sure. This past summer, yours truly taught MCB102 (Biochemistry), and examples of how genetics impacts human metabolism related to food (alcohol; milk; vitamins) drew by far the most student questions and e-mails — so people want to know! People who know — base subsequent actions on that knowledge. It’s as simple and exciting as that.

  7. Given recent advances in genetic research, it is now possible to obtain genetic information faster and cheaper than ever before. Moreover, the properties of genetic information are being discovered at an exponential rate, making it ineluctable that in the not-so-distant future, uses of genetic information will be ubiquitous. From medicine, to criminal justice, to nutrition choices, genetic information is sure to permeate the lives of those living in developed areas. That being said, the world is bound to require an increase in those that understand basic genetic principles. Given the eminent genetic revolution, I think universities should mandate a course in genetics. Universities harbor the most academically minded pupils in the world, many of whom will end up with careers in medicine or law that will undoubtedly require genetic knowledge.

    It is unrealistic to believe that in the immediate future, the ability to understand genetic information will be considered common knowledge, despite the prevalence genetics is sure to have in the everyday world. It is therefore exigent that enough people, those that receive higher education, are able to understand genetics well enough to explain the basics when it is necessary to do so. For example, if a couple is diagnosed with hypertension, yet one person is prescribed a significantly larger dose of medication than the other, the physician or pharmacist should be equipped to explain why. While it may seem as if only a relatively narrow sector of professions outside of the medical field currently makes use of genetic information, I believe that the genetic revolution is only just begun, and in just a short time, uses of genetic information that we have not even yet conceived will be regarded as quotidian. University courses in genetics should be mandatory now, so that we can prophylactically avoid a severe deficit in professionals that understand genetic information, in a time when genetic information cannot be avoided.

    • Emily, thank you for teaching me a new word (“exigent”). Your first paragraph should be some sort of manifesto for the raison d’etre of “Genetics 001,” so thank you for that as well. I also agree with your point about the need to “prophylactically” — with an eye to the future, that is — educate folks who will populate next-generation ranks of physicians, pharmacists, public health professionals, journalists, lawmakers. That is an important goal. I am also dreaming of a future where certain basic genetic facts are simply part of “Being Human 101” (ie, the “virtual” class that represents the sum total of knowledge people retain from their college years after they’ve forgotten a good chunk of what they’ve learned, sadly and inevitably).

  8. I think that basic genetics should be taught to all students, but if such classes were to be made mandatory, effort should be made to emphasize the importance of genetics in not only today’s world but in their worlds as well. Many students separate that which they learn from their own personal life, and the biggest barrier that will need to be broken is making them care–the “How will this affect my own personal life” question. Therefore, I think there should be an emphasis on real life situations in which the terminology of DNA and genes is necessary to fully comprehend the issue at hand. I agree that the detailed analysis should be saved for biology or chemistry majors, but teaching a brief understanding of genetics and its importance in our current world and future would go a long way. After all, our genetic makeup does have many consequences for our health, and health is a universal subject, affecting everyone, from doctors to politicians.

    • Elora, this is a wonderful point, thank you. You realize, of course, that Prof Rine championed the “bring your genes to Cal” program for this exact reason. I am very, very hopeful that once the glitches are worked out, and once the slightly eerie wave of misunderstanding about this program crashes against a wavebreaker of facts, reason, and common sense — then it will be feasible to teach the freshmen about the common genetic variants that they carry. Dostoevsky was right when he had his character say: “What do modern people like to talk about the most? Themselves. For that reason, I’ll talk about myself.”

  9. An understanding of genetics should be an essential part of the college curriculum. The instruction need not be extensive into the point that non-science majors be able to explain DNA pol III or non-homologous end joining. But it should go deep enough to explain the statistics behind heritable diseases. Thus, Mendel’s laws, which are taught in high school biology, needs to be emphasized as well as its consequences on our health. The general population needs to be informed of how genes can result in diseases, but not too far into the biochemical gory details. If I weren’t a science major, I would want to know what genes do and what can happen if there is a lesion or mutation. The depth at which a genetics education for non-science majors should be more about the causal relation between genes and their phenotype and how it can be inherited.
    The current generation of physicians is ill-equipped to analyze genetic and genomic data, but there will be a point in time where preventative and more holistic styles of treatment will be standard. The general public should be educated in causal connections to their health.

    • James — thank you for your thoughts. An interesting challenge here — and one that I am hopeful members of your generation will help tackle — is that most highly prevalent medical conditions do not have a simple “if you have this gene variant, then you WILL get the following diesase” basis. Experience tells us that nuance is sometimes more difficult to teach.

  10. I do think that an understanding of genetics should be included within our “common language” as a nation; I’m not entirely sure of how plausible it is to expect that to happen in an effective way. At the very least, the extent to which ones genome can determine the way a person should lead his/her life should be taught. It should be known that even though there is a lot of personal information embedded within a person’s genome, it is not the be-all-end-all of how a person should lead a healthy life.

    • Nivi — your thoughtful post reminds me of the saying “a pessimist is a well-informed optimist.” I think that a component of the mission of public schools is to be the leaders in such — admittedly, difficult — undertakings. The anti-smoking campaign has been remarkably effective in Europe and the US (look at the data here The Danes have banned trans-fats (see pubmed ID 16723283). Societies can implement science-based policies that successfully serve the common good. This requires education not just at the level of policymakers.

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