Monday, December 19, 2011

So, you slept through science class....

Whether you slept through science class due to a lack of interest or an incredibly boring teacher (gasp!), sometimes it's good to catch up on the topics that you missed. I know I’m still trying to catch up on the classic books that I never read.

In the news we constantly hear about genetic mutations, genetic engineering, gene therapy, genetically modified organisms, and a host of other gene-related issues. Many people are still a little fuzzy regarding exactly what a gene is and what it does. Question: what is the definition of a gene? Answer: A gene is a section of DNA that codes for a specific protein.

Each of our cells has a nucleus (a blocked-off space that's separated from the rest of the cell by a nuclear membrane) containing instructions for keeping the cell alive. Inside the nucleus, these instructions are written in a molecule called DNA (just like your car’s maintenance instructions are written in the user’s manual). DNA is a very long molecule; it’s actually two strands that are twisted together into a shape that scientists call a “double-helix.” So, in this long, complicated molecule is a code that tells the cell how to make various proteins (which are built out of smaller molecules called amino acids). One strand of DNA can include the instructions for making many different proteins. Thus, a gene is a section of the DNA molecule that codes for one protein. Chromosomes contain very long strands of DNA that code for many, many proteins. One chromosome contains many genes (hundreds to thousands, depending on the size of the chromosome). Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes in each cell!

Now we're equipped to deal with the news articles about genetic mutations (changes in genes that don't allow them to make the same protein) or genetically modified organisms (organisms whose genes have been changed by scientists so that they produce alternate proteins). Without understanding scientific concepts, we can’t understand environmental issues about which we have to make lifestyle decisions and vote. I meet many students who consider themselves very “green.” They’re concerned about their impact on the environment, and they’re trying to make changes in their personal lives, as well as through political action. Unfortunately, if you don’t understand the science behind these issues, then “green” is simply an emotional issue. A “green” lifestyle based on emotion only (love for animals, love for the environment, frustration with development or pollution) is doomed to failure. It’s like a marriage that’s based only on the initial flush of emotion when two people meet, rather than a mature understanding and acceptance of one another.

Let’s continue to jump in and learn the basics of environmental science. It’s not rocket science, or I wouldn’t be teaching it, believe me. Basic biology, chemistry, and ecology are within your grasp. Even if you slept through science the first time……

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