The Wonder of Genetics: The Creepy, The Curious, and the Commonplace

The Wonder of Genetics: The Creepy, The Curious, and the Commonplace

by Richard V. Kowles

How can two dwarfs conceive a tall child"

How can some plants be engineered to make their own pesticide"

What causes biological oddities like albino mice"

Why are fruit flies used so often in scientific research"

In this refreshing and entertaining guide, distinguished geneticist Richard V. Kowles explains the importance of genetics-the science of


How can two dwarfs conceive a tall child"

How can some plants be engineered to make their own pesticide"

What causes biological oddities like albino mice"

Why are fruit flies used so often in scientific research"

In this refreshing and entertaining guide, distinguished geneticist Richard V. Kowles explains the importance of genetics-the science of inheritance and physical and chemical traits-and examines its broad applications to just about every area of life. As Dr. Kowles demonstrates, it really is no exaggeration to say that genetics is everywhere.

Kowles begins by leading readers through the science involved in genetic research to show how heredity actually works and how it is studied in plants and animals, clearly explaining these concepts without an overload of technical jargon. He then turns to the many applications of genetics in our daily lives. Separate chapters are devoted to such popular topics as the potential effects of radiation on our chromosomes; eating irradiated or genetically modified foods; creating pest-resistant plants; gene therapy; nature versus nurture; and how genes are related to many diseases, and possibly psychological disturbances and behaviors.

If you have ever considered why it would be wise not to mate with a close relative, how Dolly the cloned sheep got her name, or what it took to make seedless watermelons, The Wonder of Genetics will answer these questions and many more.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
For those who are unacquainted with the basics of genetics, Kowles (Solving problems in Genetics) provides a helpful primer, but when he goes beyond the nuts and bolts to tackle concerns about the widespread bioengineering of seeds (which he endorses), his complacent, conventional views reduce complex subjects to simplistic notions. His explanations of the genetic code, how genes work in clusters, the way that the extra-nuclear genes in mitochondria function, and varying methods for genetically modifying organisms are comprehensive and informative, but he ignores potential dangers to heath and ecology (embracing salmon that "grow four times faster and larger than normal," for instance) and adheres to a narrowly conservative view of environmental issues, equating the belief held by people living 90 years ago that absorbing radiation deliberately added to food was "a metabolic rejuvenation" to a "mood today that may be better described as radiophobia." Moreover, by ignoring the implications of statistics showing that an "estimated 70% of processed food in the United States contains products of genetic engineering," Kowles does the general reader, in search of unbiased information, a disservice.
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From the Publisher
"A logical, intuitive and witty approach to learning a potentially difficult subject for some….Many of the things that we wonder about in life (genetically speaking) are elegantly and accurately explained."
–Douglas N. Foster, professor of molecular and cellular biology, Department of Animal Science, University of Minnesota

"Uses easy language coupled with a thorough glossary, pictures and diagrams to explain complex ideas….easy to pick up and start reading at any page, but can also be thoroughly enjoyed cover to cover. It’s an excellent book for anyone who is after a quick and enjoyable explanation of genetics."

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Prometheus Books
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7.32(w) x 11.80(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt


The Creepy, the Curious, and the Commonplace

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2010 Richard V. Kowles
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-214-8

Chapter One


What factors contribute to make us what we are? Why are we male or female, short or tall, blonde or brunette, blue-eyed or brown-eyed? Why do we sometimes resemble our parents, siblings, aunts, or uncles? Why do we sometimes not resemble any of our relatives? Why are some people born with defects in anatomy (such as extra fingers), defects of biochemistry (such as the inability to metabolize the amino acid phenylketonuria), or defects of neural function (such as manic depression)?

Researchers in the field of genetics investigate all of these questions, and more. All living organisms, no matter how primitive or complex, are the result of the workings of genetics. Living organ isms are composed of lifeless molecules. These molecules conform to all of the physical and chemical laws that describe inanimate matter. Yet living organisms possess extraordinary attributes not shown by inanimate matter. Living organisms have molecular organization, and these molecules have very specific functions. Living organisms can extract and transform energy from the environment. Living organisms have self-replication. If living organisms are composed of molecules that are intrinsically inanimate, why then does living matter differ so drastically from other matter? The answer lies in living organisms being able to replicate their genes. These units of inheritance, the genes, hold the information necessary to direct the construction of enzymes that are the protein tools active in cellular reactions and absolutely essential for life itself. These processes are the essence of genetics.

Genetics is a fascinating science dealing with the inheritance of physical and chemical characteristics. More specifically, genetics is the discipline involved in the study of variation due to heredity and the effects of environment on this variation. Heredity is the overall process of transmitting traits from parents to offspring. In other words, heredity is the tendency to be like your parents. To a large sigh of relief for some, "tendency" only means "tendency."

Almost everyone agrees that the actual birth of genetics came about with Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk. Mendel devoted years to a study of several hereditary traits, or characters, that he observed in common garden peas. His classic paper explaining his plant hybridization experiments first appeared in journal form in 1866, although no one gave his results serious attention at that time. Mendel collected a large amount of data indicating that hereditary characteristics were due to particles of some kind. He called these particles "factors" and showed that they passed from one generation to the next according to predictable patterns. He further observed that definitive hereditary characteristics (such as short or tall peas) did not blend together into an average form (such as medium-height peas). The characteristics remained in their original form, generation after generation.

Many students of the history of genetics, however, see 1900 as the true birth date of genetics, for it was then that three biologists independently rediscovered Mendel's paper. As a result, the basic laws of heredity became known, and studies of them could then progress at a rapid pace. Yet traditional biologists were slow to accept studies of heredity as a distinct discipline. William Bateson named the field "genetics" in 1905, and it became a respectable science about 1910.

During the period from 1900 to 1910, scientists made significant contributions to genetics. In 1903, W S. Sutton and T. Boveri independently and concurrently made the correlation between the pat tern of inheritance of Mendel's factors and the behavior of chromosomes in cells. They concluded that chromosomes were the vehicles carrying these hereditary particles. William Bateson and R. C. Punnett, among others, conducted many plant hybridization experiments during this time, again with peas but with other organisms too. These researchers quickly learned that heredity was certainly more complicated than Mendel had thought. In most cases, they supported the independence of two gene pairs in cell division as set forth by Mendel, but they discovered at the same time that exceptions occurred.

By 1911, the fruit fly (Drosophila) had become a popular experimental organism, and Columbia University's eight-desk "fly room" had become a center of genetic discovery. The fly room was the pro fessional home of Thomas Hunt Morgan and other notable pioneers of genetics. These researchers chose the fruit fly as an appropriate organism for genetic studies because it is small, easy to culture, and convenient to handle. Determining the sexes of these flies is straightforward, and crosses could be easily set up. The generation time is short, and resultant offspring are numerous. Fruit flies were found to have many different observable hereditary traits making possible a wide variety of investigations. Furthermore, the giant chromosomes visible in the salivary glands of Drosophila larvae allowed researchers to observe the detailed morphology of the chromosomes themselves.

Clearly, the history of genetics is a long series of fascinating discoveries. The science was not conceived until 1866 and only truly born in 1900; however, since the identification of the hereditary material as DNA in 1944, the discipline has grown into a giant. Today, many people are greatly excited about genetics, while others are gravely concerned about the potential applications of the discoveries that remain to be made in the field of genetics and the related field of molecular biology.

Almost every week, newspapers are reporting some kind of genetic breakthrough, especially concerning news about the discovery of specific genes. Geneticists continually announce their discoveries to the world, such as genes that they have isolated, or genes that they have identified for one trait or another such as aging, some kind of disease, or a deviant behavior. Such feats represent a tremendous amount of work, ingenuity, and accomplishment. News about every gene discovery is usually regarded as a milestone toward a possible treatment or cure for something. Newspapers would not publish this information if the public wasn't interested. Of course, some newspaper embellishment usually helps to increase this interest.

Too many people are frightened of science in general and genetics in particular. Many have a very distrustful view of scientists. It is of little wonder why this apprehension exists. Surveys of TV programs have shown that 20 percent of the time scientists are portrayed as villainous, 33 percent of the time they are failures, 5 percent of the time they kill someone, and 10 percent of the time they get killed. These are terrible impressions of science and scientists. Scientists are simply people who do experiments. Experiments can literally be beautiful with regard to a conception of ideas and the way an experiment is carried out. Not too many accomplishments can exceed the excitement of taking an idea made into a hypothesis about something scribbled on scratch paper, designing an experiment to test the hypothesis, and finally acquiring data that will add to the information of how nature works.

That heredity affects everyone's life is a gross understatement. Genes have an important impact on people. They intimately affect health, personality, parenthood, work ethics, and various social concerns —sometimes in surprising ways. We are products of heredity. Genetics is a tremendous success story, but being accepted by society has not been easy. Genetics can solve problems, and yes, genetics can create problems. The discipline is an extensive component of medicine, agriculture, and generally all of biology; and genetics is already becoming an important part of psychology. Sociology may be next, but some still oppose this connection. At any rate, critical decisions need to be made about genetic advances, decisions that indeed could affect humankind. Think about the situations, good, bad, or even downright ugly, that we encounter every day. Think also about the common denominator that exists among many of these situations. Serious concerns abound with such issues as genetic engineering, reproductive manipulation, cloning, and human genetic testing. We also think about AIDS, cancer, alcoholism, mental defects, prenatal diagnoses, consanguinity (inbreeding), developmental sexual disorders, aging, human sterility, resistance to antibiotics, and numerous hereditary diseases. This litany of everyday concerns can be extended even more by the inclusion of the stem cell research controversy, the nature versus nurture controversy, the evolution-creationism controversy, DNA testing, race issues, and numerous other topics. What is the common aspect of all these topics? It is genetics. Even many comics, cartoons, movies, and everyday events have relevancy to genetics. Genetic concepts are everywhere.


Excerpted from THE WONDER OF GENETICS by RICHARD V. KOWLES Copyright © 2010 by Richard V. Kowles. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Richard V. Kowles, PhD (Winona, MN), is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in Biology at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. He is the author of Solving Problems in Genetics and Genetics, Society, and Decisions, among other publications.

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