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Undergraduate genetics

Posted by sarochany on 14 Aug 2012 at 20:42 GMT

Dr Redfield appropriately suggests that we reevaluate our undergraduate genetics courses for biology majors. I have taught a general genetics course for majors for over 30 years and also teach an advanced human genetics course for majors and occasionally a nonmajors course in human genetics. My general genetics course has changed in content over the years, although not in the abrupt form that Dr Redfield suggests.

Most of my changes have reflected the importance of new topics that should be added to a general genetics course and the fact the semester doesn't get any longer. Sadly, some material has to go, not because it is useless to students, but because of time constraints. In my own case, much of bacterial genetics has been missing for over ten years including interrupted mating experiments and complex analysis of transduction and transformation. I still cover the basics of gene transfer in bacteria. Even if a student never works in bacterial genetics, I would prefer that biology majors graduate with some appreciation of how important lateral gene transfer is in bacterial evolution and some of the ways that we think that it occurs. Tetrad analysis was also jettisoned over ten year ago, although I still mention haploid eukaryotes. Maybe a student will be working on a future biotech project looking for useful mutations in algae. I now leave DNA structure and the basics of transcription, translation and DNA replication to the core courses.

Nearly 30 years ago I started adding recombinant DNA topics to General Genetics and this continues. More recently genomics and epigenetics has been added. I assume other instructors are doing similar refinements. I have our bioinformatics instructor give a short workshop during the course to introduce students to this topic.

We can't expect to teach students much genetics in a single course. My students come into the general genetics course with some mendelian genetics and molecular biology from their core biology courses. This allows me to avoid having to deal with too much abstraction. From the first week of classes, I can treat alleles as alternative DNA sequences and I can use some simple biochemical pathways to illustrate examples of gene interaction. We offer advanced undergraduate courses in human genetics, population genetics, bioinformatics and molecular biology. No student takes all of these, but they do allow a more complete treatment of some aspects of genetics.

I would be hesitant in using Google search results to plan a general genetics course. How significant will these topics be in five, not to mention twenty or more years? I have no way to predicting precisely where genetics will be going in the future or what aspects of it my students will be involved in. I can't give students the material now that I know that they will be using in their future careers. I don't expect students to have profound insights into the current topics in genetics that are important for society because they took my course.

I hope that my students, at least some of them, will have the basics of genetics from my course that they can build upon with further study as they face new challenges in their careers or simply living in a modern society. I don't believe that there is any magically way of teaching a genetic course that insures a desired result. We teach in different ways and our students learn in different ways. Being concerned and enthusiastic about our field may the best way to help our students.

Bob Fowler

No competing interests declared.