Gene Science: From Mendel to Molecule
In the first half of the 20th century, genetics was the study of inherited traits. Though DNA was unknown, genetic inheritance could be predicted with remarkable precision. Genetics was applied to the breeding of animals and plants, as well as to explaining of human inherited disorders. The discovery of DNA, followed by the invention of recombinant DNA, the ability to combine DNA from two unrelated species, led to fears of genetic disaster that at first nearly overwhelmed the potential applications for agriculture and medicine. But as the immediate fears have failed to materialize, the applications of gene science have multiplied. Genetics forms the basis of entire new industries and generates frequent headlines of futuristic advances, such as cloning, gene therapy, genetic testing, and stem-cell therapies.
Various dimensions of genetic science are touched upon in the science fiction stories described here. In Kurt Vonneguts Galapagos, evolution is a central theme. In Michael Crichtons Jurassic Park, the potential of recombinant DNA is explored. Finally, Bruce Sterlings Distraction brings us into the postgenomic era.
Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut (1985)
2. The human population decreases so fast that it experiences a population bottleneck, a severe reduction in size that reduces diversity. Why can a population bottleneck lead to rapid evolution? Considering our knowledge of the human genome, when did the human species (or its predecessor) experience a population bottleneck? What was the result?
3. After the population bottleneck in Galapagos, the deterioration of human brainpower is explained by degenerative evolution, the gradual loss of traits that are not under selection pressure in a given environment. What other examples of degenerative evolution does Vonnegut cite throughout his book? Why does the protagonist argue that human brains have become too big for our own good and hence have lost their survival value? Does the books ending suggest a way out of this dilemma?
4. Can we see molecular examples of degenerative evolution in the human genome? What kind of genetic elements do not receive selection pressure and therefore tend to degenerate?
Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton (1990)
2. Would it be possible to recreate dinosaur chromosomes from samples of ancient DNA? What technical steps would be necessary?
3. Would it be possible to use the recreated dinosaur chromosomes to create living cells and entire dinosaurs? What else besides chromosomes would it take to build a living cell?
Distraction, by Bruce Sterling (1998)
2. The Buna National Research Collaboratory rescues and restores species of animals driven extinct by humanity. What challenges do the scientists face in technology and in politics? Compare their predicament and response with those of the dinosaur regeneration program of Jurassic Park. What choices do they make, and what solutions do they find?
3. When Oscar asks the head of the Collaboratory, Dr. Greta Penninger, what she desires, she says she wants a return to the Golden Age, when a good grant proposal always got funded. Why does Dr. Penninger think this Golden Age disappeared? Why does Oscar think it disappeared? In real science, where does funding come from? Who funded the Human Genome Project, and who is funding its applications now?
4. In the end, how do the Collaboratory scientists rescue their project and secure the future of their laboratory? What does this suggest about the responsibility of scientists to pursue community outreach?
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