Here's the list ...
This is a strange list. Let me explain why.
These six concepts for genetic literacy will hereafter be referred to as the core genetics concepts.
- DNA is the universal information molecule in living organisms, encoding genes and allowing for genetic variation within and genetic continuity between generations (DNA);
- Mendelian patterns of inheritance are directly related to the mechanisms of meiosis (MENDELIAN);
- Traits result from the expression of one or more genes working alone or together, with the environment, often in unpredictable ways (GENE EXPRESSION);
- The activities of genes and the environment regulate all developmental processes (GENES + ENVIRONMENT);
- Genetic variation underlies variation in traits, which is the basis for the differential survival and reproduction that allow populations to evolve (VARIATION); and
- The ability to analyze and manipulate genetic information raises a variety of complex issues for individuals and society (GENES + SOCIETY).
- The structure of DNA and how it is expressed should be covered in other mandatory courses, including introductory biology and biochemistry. You should not have to spend any time at all on these topics in a genetics course. (P.S. DNA does not "encode genes.") You may want to spend some time on the biochemistry of recombination if it's not covered elsewhere. Students should understand Holliday junctions and how they are resolved.
- Mendelian genetics is important. Students should learn and understand the three laws he discovered. They should also learn about meiosis and sex. However, it's important for students to understand that simple transmission genetics is not limited to diploid eukaryotes. Bacteria also do genetics.
- Traits (phenotype) are due to information in DNA (not just genes) but most of those traits have very little to do with the external environment.
- Of course the activities of genes regulate development. They also regulate the citric acid cycle, photosynthesis, and protein synthesis. Surely you don't want undergraduates to think that development is the only thing that's important in genetics?
- It's important for students to understand that populations contain genetic variation. That means they have to learn about MUTATION and how it happens. They also have to learn why there's so much variation in populations—one of the most important discoveries in genetics in the last century. The answer is Neutral Theory and random genetic drift. No genetics course should leave out this important concept, especially because so few students will have never heard of it before enrolling in the course.
- Discussions about cloning, GM foods, and personal genomes are interesting but, unfortunately, there are very few scientists who can handle those issues in a genetics course. The important core concept is to get the science right and make sure students understand that getting the science right is absolutely essential whenever you discuss controversial issues.
- POPULATION GENETICS is an essential core concept in an introductory genetics course. You can't teach students about the genetics of EVOLUTION without it.
McElhinn et al. (2014) discuss one possible change in the curriculum. It's a suggestion originally made by Dougherty (2009) and echoed by Redfield (2012). The idea is to "invert" genetics courses by beginning with coverage of poplations, variation, and complex traits. I strongly disagree with Rosie Redfield's proposal [see Questions for Genetics Students] but what surprises me in the McElhinny et al (2014) paper is that they can seriously list those core concepts without mentioning mutation and population genetics.
McElhinny, T.L., Dougherty, M.J., Bowling, B.V., and Libarkin, J.C. (2014) The Status of Genetics Curriculum in Higher Education in the United States: Goals and Assessment. Science and Education 23:445-464.
Redfield, R. J. (2012) "Why do we have to learn this stuff?’’—A new genetics for 21st century students. PLoS Biology, 10, e1001356 [doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001356]