Genetic Inherited Trait Mapping – Would You Want to Know?

Photo: Horia Varlan

Here’s a common quandary for you – if you could know exactly when you are going to die, would you want to find out?  For me the answer is pretty easy – no way Jose!  I don’t want to live my life neurotically counting down to my death.  But what if you draw the line a little farther back?  What if you could know the likelihood that you will have a certain disease in your lifetime?  Or even the trivial: would you like to be told some of your insignificant traits that you may otherwise never even know?

Is this even in the realm of possibility?
If you recall from the pea pod example in junior high, each gene is made up of two alleles – with each allele either being dominant or recessive. To show the recessive trait both alleles must be recessive.  But for humans it is rarely this simple.  These genes combine in incredibly complex ways to make you who you are – most characteristics are determined by more than one gene.  Even though it is incredibly complex, I think it just a matter of time until every conceivable human trait is identified – it should be possible with enough data and large enough computers crunching the numbers. (geek tangent)

Affecting your lifestyle
What would I like to know?  Areas where I could potentially take action to prevent a calamity before it strikes, rather than just worrying for worrying’s sake.  The obvious example are lifestyle diseases such as lung cancer, skin cancer, heart disease, and stroke.  Am I in the top 1% of the population for genetic risk of heart disease?  If so you better believe I would be extra careful to watch what I eat and make sure I exercise.

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I Love Educational Rap Videos

Rap videos are unequivocally my favorite way to learn. Really any educational music video. It started in my childhood with School House Rocks and eventually Bill Nye the Science Guy.  To this day I still love educational songs, but not so much the ones geared towards things you learn in 6th grade. Believe it or not there are smart raps with collegiate level subject matter.

One of my friends from Stanford, Tom McFadden, created a series of rap videos about human biology. He was a course instructor for the human biology program and created most the videos to help teach his students. Even though it is not my favorite topic, I am completely engrossed by the videos and able to retain a lot of information:

Here is an explanation by Tom:

Since virtually all cells have the same genome, cell specialization (for example: whether a cell becomes a neuron or a skin cell) is largely controlled by which genes are actually transcribed in a given cell. This can be controlled by transcription factors – proteins which bind to DNA and interact with the cellular machinery to control gene expression. An important family of transcription factors are Hox genes, which control which body parts grow where.

Hox genes control where legs, wings, and antennae grow in the fruit fly (so mutating them leads to some strange creatures). These same Hox genes have been highly conserved during evolution, and control vertebrae specialization in mice and humans. This helps to bring home a main lesson of developmental biology: that creating different body forms isn’t so much about what genes you have, but how you regulate them.

But my absolute favorite educational music video is “Fear the Boom and Bust” about the macroeconomic theories of John Maynard Keynes and F.A. Hayek. It is professionally made and provides a hilarious account of Economics 101:

This quality of content comes about when a talented producer with an interest in macroeconomics realizes the popular media isn’t talking about monetary policy. We need more people like this in the media.

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