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Genes and the Human Condition (From Behavior to Biotechnology)



University of Maryland, College Park


Raymond Leger, Tammatha O'Brien

Life Sciences, Medicine, Health

6 weeks



In this class we will cover the essentials of genomics to help you better understand your own life (know thy genome, know thyself), and how advances in biotechnology are radically changing the scientific landscape. We will begin with some of the most basic issues of genetics, such as the composition of genomes and how the information in them is processed so we can get an adult human from an egg. Then we’ll see that much of the power of genomics is in comparisons. If I only had your genome there's not much I could do with it. But if I lined it up against a chimpanzee genome I’d see that they are 98.5% identical. It’s that 1.5% difference that we study to determine what makes a chimp a chimp and a human a human.  In the next few years you’ll be able to get your genome done for a few hundred dollars, and we will look at the challenges you might face dealing with this new self-knowledge. We shall particularly focus on behavior. How can genes predispose some of us to be nice and others of us to be psychopaths? We will be examining behavior as a complex unfolding of interactions between your genome and the environment. Thanks in large part to genomics we are beginning to understand the living processes that constitute ourselves, where we can begin to intervene to take control of our own future. We will look at the technologies involved and the consequences of this new power. Genetic engineering has already changed what you eat and the medicines you take, and will likely therefore change how long you live. If we choose to genetically engineer ourselves as some advocate then we may also change how we view ourselves as human beings. We do not know where our ability to intervene in our own living processes is going to lead us. Depending on your point of view that is the promise or the threat of the era we live in. Scientists today already envisage creating life from scratch, and we are entering a world where political considerations, and imagination, may be the only brakes on biotechnology.