We use it routinely to cure diseases, solve crimes, and reunite families. Yet we’ve known about it for only 60 years. And what we’re continuing to learn about it every day has the potential to transform our health, our nutrition, our society, and our future. What is this powerful mystery?
It is DNA—deoxyribonucleic acid, the self-replicating material present in nearly all living organisms. Award-winning teacher, author, and cancer researcher Dr. David Sadava unlocks its mysteries in his new course, Understanding Genetics: DNA, Genes, and Their Real-World Applications. He guides us through decades of scientific discovery and the weighty implications for us, as individuals and as a society.
< p>Genetics: The Science of Heredity
How are the traits of an organism—be it a fern or a human father—passed on to its offspring? This course outlines the history of the science of genetics and explains in detail what we have learned in recent decades about the building blocks—DNA.
Dr. Sadava, a working scientist who draws on examples from his own research, shows us how understanding genetics allows us to improve medical treatment and nutrition, vastly improving our health and quality of life.
Understanding genetics is also a critical step toward understanding our human identity. Examining our DNA—how it works and what happens when something goes wrong—enables us to see the roots of how our bodies work, why we get sick, and how traits are passed through families.
Enjoy this rare opportunity to peer over the shoulder of a working scientist; learn how he puzzles through the problems of genetics to find meaningful solutions that can save lives. Dr. Sadava shares cutting-edge research guided by his passion to help laypeople understand the meaning and importance of genetics.
Genetics’ Long and Fascinating History
Our understanding of human development has certainly evolved since ancient Greek times, when Aristotle thought that the ingredients in semen were reorganized by menstrual fluid during intercourse to produce an embryo. And as late as the 17th century, Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek thought he saw tiny, fully formed babies when he looked under a microscope at sperm.
Other past civilizations, however, knew more about genetics than we might think. For example, Egyptians successfully bred the date palm 4,000 years ago to improve the quality and quantity of their fruit crop. In Asia and the Near East 3,500 years ago, horses were bred for speed in racing.
But while humans have worked to improve plant and animal characteristics for thousands of years, we’ve only come to truly understand what genes are made of and how they work during the past century.
Insight into a Puzzle
Understanding genetics is like sitting down to work a massive puzzle. With each piece you examine, think through, and solve, you glean a new and amazing insight into humanity. Put several pieces together, and you can treat or cure a disease, save a developing fetus from a fatal birth defect, catch a criminal, or reunite a family.
DNA, genes, proteins, amino acids, and enzymes are the vocabulary of our being—what goes on inside our bodies and how our genes are expressed. To learn this vocabulary is to be conversant in who we are and what we can become.
To help us understand the role of proteins in DNA, Professor Sadava cites the example of boiling an egg. A protein’s shape is sensitive to its surroundings and can be changed by heat. When you boil an egg—made of a protein called albumin—the heat of the water changes the albumin’s structure to create a completely different consistency. As Professor Sadava reminds us, “You can’t unboil an egg; changes are irreversible.” Next time you’re making egg salad, just think—you’ve transformed a protein!
Dr. Sadava loves to tell tales, and the stories he uses to introduce each lecture are the highlight of the course. He weaves in history, true crime, case studies of people with life-threatening diseases, and phenomena from the natural world to make genetics come to life. Then he steadfastly supports each story with explanatory science.
Professor Sadava deftly introduces us to the puzzle that is genetics, and shows how unlocking each piece helps solve significant real-world problems that affect everyone.
Each lecture begins with a helpful story that illustrates the importance of genetics. The course explicitly outlines the connections between the science of genetics and the health-related problems that plague us in modern society, and illuminates how studying genetics can be instrumental in solving those problems.
While Understanding Genetics is a vigorous and briskly paced course, you won’t need a background in biology or chemistry. You’ll feel challenged, but you won’t be left behind. Professor Sadava is passionate about his subject and extremely knowledgeable.
Genetics in the News
Should we allow cloning? How can we treat obesity? Why do different ethnic groups have higher rates of particular diseases than others? Countless questions of biology prompt heated discussions in the classroom, the legislature, and the courtroom. Obtaining a basic and current knowledge of how genetics works helps inform our ideas and opinions on these important issues.
Many of us are touched by diseases caused by genetic mutations or flaws—such as cystic fibrosis, diabetes, cancer, and sickle cell anemia. In the face of life-threatening, debilitating diseases, Professor Sadava gives us hope through research and discoveries made every day in the field of genetics.
He tells the story of one couple whose young son had cystic fibrosis, the most common inherited disease. Genetic testing prior to their next pregnancy enabled them to implant an embryo without the cystic fibrosis genes into the mother’s uterus. The result: the couple was able to have a healthy daughter.
Only in the past few decades have scientists begun to discover and isolate the particular genes that cause certain diseases or conditions and to conduct the research that enables us to actually change genetics.
As Professor Sadava reminds us throughout the course, genetics is not destiny. How we grow and develop is strongly influenced by our environment. But understanding genetics provides us with a wealth of information that can help improve the health and quality of life for everyone.