Week 1: A Peek into the Genome
Imagine a stack of textbooks, packed like sardines with words, and standing four stories high. Now think about being given the task to find not one page, not one paragraph, but one word. Seems like an impossible task. To some extent, this is comparable to the task scientists were charged with in the late 1980s while attempting to pinpoint the location of a mutant gene responsible for causing cystic fibrosis. When I initially heard this daunting analogy I could scarcely imagine any way in which one could accomplish this job. And yet in three hours, minus time for water and snacks, our professor was able to give us a pretty good idea.
Our DNA is made up of different bases abbreviated with letters, which are wound around proteins that make up structures called chromosomes. And incredibly, some three billion letters are all able to fit into 23 pairs of chromosomes, which reside happily in the cell of each nucleus in each cell. I find sometimes in class as we work through problems, attack complex scenarios, and delve deep into peculiar topics it’s easy to get caught up in minute details that demand your attention and forget the sheer vastness and breadth of genetics. But when I take a step back it’s pretty astonishing to me, even as a science major, that genetics can weave its way into nearly any subject imaginable. And I guess that’s obvious, I mean biology is the study of life after all, but its scope and relevance is pretty impressive.
It’s T-minus 5 minutes to the start of class and I’m anxiously filtering through yesterday’s information trying to make room for today’s. Class typically begins at 9:00 am and lasts until lunchtime. Rather than watching slides on a PowerPoint or reading from a textbook our professor engages us in often seemingly different topics which somehow always manage to come down to one thing: the gene, a pair of genes, or some combination of genes. From hypercholesterolemia to baldness to chocolate and yellow labs I usually manage to leave class with more questions that I came in with. But one week in and I’m trying to accept that maybe that’s the whole idea of genetics: to realize how much there is and how much is still widely unknown.