Genetics: Unlock Your Code!

January 23, 2019

genetics copyDr. Maia Larios is Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of St. Thomas. She is a part of the new “Science and Nature” category being offered here at WIH. In her upcoming class, “Genetics: Unlock Your Code!” Dr. Larios will guide students through the world of genomics—how it works as well as its indications for humans. We caught up with her to learn about the fascinating discoveries that are being made in the field of genetics at amazing rates.

WIH Reporter: Welcome to WIH, Dr. Larios! In your opinion, what do you think is the most exciting, recent breakthrough in genetics?

Larios: Although not terribly recent, I think that the sequencing of the human genome in 2001 really changed the way we understand human genetics and this has some really promising applications in many different aspects of society – perhaps most importantly, the fact that it makes personalized medicine possible. Imagine being able to get the best therapy for a particular ailment based on your genetic background (which informs how well you might tolerate a drug, or how fast you might metabolize it, or if the drug will actually work in the first place), rather than waiting to determine what the best course of action is by trial and error.
WIH Reporter: Personalized medicine, that is exciting! What other surprises are in store for us in learning about this subject?

Larios: I am so excited about this class because there are many interesting current interest topics regarding genetics. We will start by going over the fundamentals of the genetic code – how our genetic instructions are interpreted by our cells, and how physical traits are passed on from parents to offspring. We will also spend time talking about topics currently in the news, like cloning, genetically modified foods and gene editing.

WIH Reporter: What is the most common, mistaken impression that we have about the field of genetics or about genes?

Larios: I think a lot of people attribute too much to genetic factors and forget that environmental factors are also important to shaping organisms. This is the nature vs. nurture debate, and the more we learn, the more it becomes evident that we are actually much more than our genes. Another common misconception about genetics is that it has many nefarious applications, like cloning humans for example, so many people are scared of genetic research. I think that there are many incredibly beneficial applications to genetic techniques, and there are many good people working to make sure that the scientific community works within ethical and moral frameworks.

WIH Reporter: We are hearing a lot about genetic editing, or CRISPR. What exactly is this? And, what are the potential benefits? Are there any ethical concerns?

Larios: We will definitely talk about this in the class! CRISPR is a gene editing tool that allows researchers to change the genetic instructions of a cell. It is like surgery at the molecular level. Pieces of defective DNA can be cut out of the chromosome and replaced by the correct version of the gene. This of course opens up amazing opportunities, especially relating to human health. There are of course ethical concerns, because we don’t yet know enough about the global effects of the change – you might correct something but inadvertently cause a new problem in the process. There are also genuine concerns about the possibility of not only changing individuals, but also future generations.
WIH Reporter: What do you think about DNA kits? And, how do these ancestry tests work?

Larios: Ancestry kits are a fun and non-invasive way to figure out general information about your family history. The user provides a sample – usually spit or a mouth swab – which contains many of your cells, from which DNA is isolated. Computer algorithms are used to look for patterns of similarity in the order of bases in your DNA compared to reference sequences that are associated with specific populations (such as West African or Northwest European, for example). Some companies now offer additional services relating to health, and will give you information about specific health risks by looking at whether you carry genetic sequences associated with a particular disease. We will talk much more about these kits in the class!

WIH Reporter: What will be the format of your class?

Larios: The format of the class will be mostly lecture and Q&A but I know many of the topics will foster a lot of discussion, so I look forward to thoughtful conversation with the participants.

WIH Reporter: If someone wanted to read about genetics for fun – what book would you recommend?

Larios: Genome by Matt Ridley is a great introduction to human genetics. The book is divided into 23 chapters, one for each of the chromosomes that makes up our genome. Ridley picks great examples of newly discovered genes at the time and does so in an engaging and informative way, without being overly technical.