Further information on Winter 2019 courses


Ed Lufkin and Mike Harper: DNA for Non-scientists


Course text

The Gene:An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, which will be available at Content Bookstore or from Amazon (likely discounted from publisher’s list price of $20).


Expanded description

We’ve heard a great deal about DNA recently, and no wonder!  DNA controls the structure of genes, the fundamental units of heredity and the basic units of all biological information, and in recent years research into the structure and function of DNA and genes has accelerated, enabling the dramatic advances we’ve been reading about, not only  in medicine – prediction and prevention of diseases, understanding of genetic diseases and development of drug therapies– but in such far-flung fields as criminal forensics and genealogy.  Ed Lufkin will lead off each week with a discussion of the “science,” of DNA-related research and discoveries and of related advances.

Along with the DNA-enabled advances have come important questions of public policy, law and ethics. Some of these questions have been resolved.  Some are hotly debated today, and more are bound to be raised as promised research expands what we can accomplish.  (For instance, how do you feel about “designer babies” or a “national DNA registry”?)  Each week, Mike Harper will introduce one or more of the questions raised by the discoveries and related advances, for discussion by the class.

If you have already tested your own DNA, you will have ample opportunity to discuss what you learned. Suppose you have been found to harbor unhealthy genes.  How worried should you be? What can be done about that?   We will discuss a number of approaches to this, including the very recent CRISPR technology, probably not realistic in our own lifetimes, but likely for our descendants.  This course will offer some insights into all these areas in slide shows, videos, text, and plain language.


Schedule of classes (subject to modification)

Week 1: Introducing ourselves; understanding home DNA tests; pp. 1-85

Week 2: History of genetics; pp. 1-85

Week 3: Prying open the black box of the cell; pp. 85-160

Week 4: Structure & function of genes; pp. 161-235

Week 5: Sequencing and cloning of genes;  pp. 236-292

Week 6: Human genome project; pp. 293-369

Week 7: Challenging problems; sexual identity, identical twins, environmental effects on genes; pp. 370-413

Week 8: Human gene therapy; pp. 417-485