08 February 2012


Genotype ~ the precise DNA sequence of an individual organism.

Phenotype ~ the collection of all observable and measurable traits of that organism, both physical and behavioral.

Each of us is born with his/her own genotype.  That genotype, in tandem with the post-birth environment, in large part determines one's phenotype.  Those who have taken an entry level genetics class understand the distinction, and how they interrelate.  Those who have not can gain a layman's understanding by perusing either of two articles ~ What's a Genotype?  What's a Phenotype?  And Why Do I Care? by Matt Shipman is a concise summary, but lacks illustrations.  From Genes to Traits ~ How Genotype Affects Phenotype is a bit longer, but the narrative flows easily and illustrations aid in understanding.  

When I was an undergrad in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, genetics was one of my most challenging classes.  It was also one of the most rewarding.  The challenge of parsing out alleles, genes, chromosomes, how they are expressed (manifest in appearance or behavior) and how they interact, especially during fertilization, was like rediscovering a primordial, ancestral language.  It explained so very much about how each of us turns out as we do.

But not completely.  Once we are born, the nurturing and socialization (or lack thereof) by parents, family, peers and community heavily influence our perceptions and our choices.  So taking the concept of our genesis one step further, Alice Dreger presented a TED talk entitled Is Anatomy Destiny?  Her background is in the history of anatomy, and in patient advocacy.  She walks us through the processes of genetics, sexual development, and how they relate to our social categories, and even to essential definitions like "what is death"?  The questions she raises are hugely evocative, and deserve careful thought by all of us.  The founding fathers of the U.S. as anatomical activists?  Check out the video.

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