“It is certainly as true as the gospel that when a man sleeps with his wife or his mistress with dirty and smelly feet, if he fathers a boy, the child will have smelly and unpleasant breath. If he fathers a girl, she will have a stinky rear end.”
We’ve moved on a bit in our understanding of inheritance since that advice from the Distaff Gospels, a collection of medieval Old Wives’ Tales. But there are still plenty of misunderstandings about genetics, genomics, and heredity today.
In the latest episode of Genetics Unzipped, the Genetics Society podcast, Kat Arney takes a look at some of the common myths and misconceptions surrounding genomics and genetic tests. Are mutations always bad? If you’re more like your mum, does that mean you’ve inherited more of her genes? And is there such a thing as a perfect genome?
This episode is produced in partnership with the Genomics Education Programme as part of their Week of Action, from the 16th to the 20th March, raising awareness about the impact of genomics in healthcare and what we can all do to tackle some of the misinformation that’s out there. You can join the conversation by following @genomicsedu and #GenomicsConversation on Twitter or head over to genomicseducation.hee.nhs.uk
According to Laura Boyes, Consultant Genetic Counsellor for the West Midlands, these misconceptions can have a serious impact on our relationship to ourselves and others in our family.
She explains that she often meets people with the idea that having a gene alteration is a response to a bad thing that has happened in their family’s past, something that they’ve done wrong, or that it carries a sort of stigma.
Laura says, “One that we really commonly hear in families where there’s a recessive condition like cystic fibrosis is grandparents or great-grandparents saying, ‘That can’t possibly have come from our side of the family because there isn’t any history of that in our side of the family. It can’t be us.’
“I think that does two things: first of all, it overlooks the fact that in recessive conditions you often don’t see any history in the family. Because it takes two people that are carriers to have a child together for a child to be born with cystic fibrosis. That can happen to anybody at any time, even if there’s no history.
“Also, it gives a kind of judgement gives a kind of judgement for somebody being a carrier when in actual fact we’ve all got alterations in our genes. They give us differences; they make us unique. Some of them give us good attributes and some of them are more difficult and challenging to deal with.
“It’s completely normal: we’ve all got some alterations in our genes and it feels quite important that we recognise that and we help people to understand that.”
But although genetic counsellors and others who speak with the public about genomics are moving away from using the word ‘mutations’ or ‘mutants’ to describe these differences, Laura still finds that language surprisingly useful when it comes to connecting with certain audiences.
“I’ve had teenagers and young children particularly, when I’ve talked about genetics, say they’ve got really excited about the idea that they might be a mutant because they really like X-Men. So it suddenly means that they’re a superhero!”
Kat also chats with Anna Middleton, Head of Society and Ethics Research at the Wellcome Genome Campus in Cambridge, about whether media portrayals of genetics are a help or a hindrance, and if scientists should get worked up about ‘bad science’ in the movies.
She also speaks with Michelle Bishop, the Education Lead for the Genomics Education Programme, about whose job it is to spread accurate and understandable information about genomics, and the need for educators and healthcare professionals to keep up to date with advances in this fast-moving field.
Listen to the full episode now at GeneticsUnzipped.com
Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from the UK Genetics Society, presented by award-winning science communicator and biologist Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media. Follow Kat on Twitter @Kat_Arney, Genetics Unzipped @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK