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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: http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends.html – 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?