Rosemary Redfield (Department of Zoology, Life Sciences Institute, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) has recently published an article in Public Library of Science Biology: “Why Do We Have to Learn This Stuff?”—A New Genetics for 21st Century Students.
The article outlines problems she sees with the disconnect between the traditional undergrad genetics courses and what biology students really need to learn about genetics. She also outlines a new course that she thinks should replace the traditional genetics class. (She does not say whether she has convinced her colleagues at UBC of the wisdom of such a change.)
After outlining the syllabus for the new course, she admits that she expects some pushback:
This radical a change will encounter lots of obstacles. For many geneticists the most upsetting change will be the demotion of genetic analysis from its reigning place in the curriculum. 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.
Here, stripped of all the explanation and justification that Prof. Redfield provides, is the core of her proposed curriculum:
Box 4. Suggested Syllabus for a 21st Century Genetics Course
- Personal genomics
- Natural genetic variation in populations (humans and others)
- Structure and function of genes and chromosomes
- Genetic variation arises by mutation
- Genetic variation and evolution (selection for function, phylogeny, homologs, gene families)
- How genes affect phenotypes: pathways, regulatory interactions, heterozygosity, dominance effects (several classes)
- Genetic variation also arises by chromosome reassortment and homologous recombination
- Mitosis and meiosis: mechanisms and genetic consequences (several classes)
- Mating: mechanisms and genetic consequences
- Linkage and sex linkage
- Genetic analysis: investigating gene action using inheritance of simple (“Mendelian”) alleles and phenotypes in crosses and pedigrees (several classes)
- Organelle genetics
- Epigenetic inheritance
- Genome structure, function and evolution; causes and consequences of chromosomal changes (several classes)
- Phenotypic effects of natural genetic differences, heritability
- Genome-wide association studies and related studies linking genes to phenotypes (several classes)
- Genetics of cancer; inheritance of alleles affecting risk
I rather like the idea of starting genetics from a population view, rather than a Mendelian analysis of phenotypes, but I think that personal genomics should come a bit later.
Of course, I’ve never taken a genetics class, so I don’t really know which parts of it are essential (or even what is in the standard course). One concept that does seem to be important in reading papers about genomics is the notion of chromosomal distance in centimorgans. That seems to still be there in the middle of the class (in the lectures on linkage).
I’m curious what people who teach genetics courses or require them as prereqs for their classes think of this shift in emphasis of genetics courses. What would it gain? What would it lose? Has this sort of change to the course already been tried?