Genetics for the 21st century

By Razib Khan | July 3, 2012 9:37 pm

Rosie Redfield has an opinion piece out in PLoS Biology on refashioning genetics education for the 21st century, “Why Do We Have to Learn This Stuff?”—A New Genetics for 21st Century Students:

…Genetic analysis used to be the most powerful tool for understanding how organisms work, and thus the best skill we could give our students, but its research role has been largely supplanted by molecular methods. Cuts to genetic analysis also threaten the problem-based learning that has been a hallmark of genetics courses. Genetics instructors have all devoted time to developing problems that replicate those arising in real genetics research labs, and a major feature in textbook choice is the quantity and quality of the end-of-chapter problems.

Other cuts will be less traumatic. Our students will probably never need to do a 3-factor cross, except maybe in an outdated genetics laboratory course, nor to analyze phenotypic ratios of progeny, once “one of the pillars of genetics”…There’s also little justification for retaining haploid genetics, fungal genetics, tetrad analysis, and classical somatic-cell genetics in an introductory genetics course. Classical bacterial genetics (conjugation, transduction, transformation) should go too—I’m a bacterial geneticist, so trust me on this one.

I believe the target audience here consists of undergraduate biology majors. If so, I agree the thrust of this piece.The average biology major will encounter a fair amount of genomics in their lives in the near future, at least filtered through medical professionals and such. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly for most, genomics is going to be a major avenue through which we explore biological pathways with medical relevance. The confusion over dominance rings trues.

But I wonder, does this not apply to those learning genetics at the graduate level? Genetic analysis in the abstract is useful, but when is the last time anyone did tetrad analysis that wasn’t working with yeast? In contrast, everyone probably has to develop some level of comfort with the general ins and outs of raw sequence analysis. All organisms have sequences, and many will be sequenced.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m not too interested in molecular genetics. But I do think it is probably useful to start with the idea of the gene as a concrete biophysical entity, rather than as an abstract unit of inheritance. Once you start with the concrete, you can work back to the abstract.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Genomics
MORE ABOUT: Genetics
  • DK

    I would have commented in PLoS but it requires idiotic registration. I sure hope that nobody I know and will ever know gets a faux genetics education from the kind of course Rosie advocates. It would be hard to come up with a less logical progression than the one presented in her “Suggested Syllabus for a 21st Century Genetics Course”.

  • bob sykes

    “a concrete biophysical entity…”

    When I was in graduate school, a gene was a protein, period, and people thought the genome was largely junk because it didn’t code for protein. There was something called neutral evolution that apparently operated on the junk. Prior to that it had been characters, like smooth v. wrinkled. These were not only physical entities, they were macroscopically visible.

    Dear Razib, what would you call a gene today?

  • Razib Khan

    Dear Razib, what would you call a gene today?

    i don’t care. i’m not a molecular biologist, so i’m more interested in units of selection, etc.

  • John Roth

    For a different view on this, what John Hawks (U of Wisconsin-Madison) did in his evolutionary human biology course last semester seems quite interesting. He turned the standard curriculum inside out by introducing the genetics piece by piece as he covered each organ system, and repeating it system by system as appropriate for that particular system. That provides the needed repetition and reinforcement so I suspect most of the students will actually remember the genetics and genomics parts of the material.

  • Jorge Laris

    Cool. Just for the record, I’m an undergraduate student of History of México (at Yucatán). And I’m a follower of your publications.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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