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Understanding genetics, for the nonscientist


Almost daily, a news story describes the discovery of a gene that causes a serious disease. It may seem that we know a lot about genetics, but, despite significant progress in genomics research, the truth is we are just beginning to understand the human genome and its impact on health and disease. Great strides have certainly been made in the decade since the first “rough draft” of the human genome was announced, but there are many questions yet to be answered.

We each have a unique genetic profile. When we are born, we are, in effect, dealt a hand of cards with which we play the game of life. How we play our “hand” of genes, through behavior and environment, will have a lot to do with our health. According to the Centers for Disease Control, genetic inheritance has a significant influence in nine of the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. today.

The study of human genomics is much more complex than the coin tossing we did in junior high to help us understand fruit flies and inherited traits. For those of us nonscientists who want to understand more, a good place to start is Stanford Health Library, where there is a wealth of information on the topic, in books, both print and electronic, videos and online databases.

A really engrossing book that attempts to make sense of current understanding is “Genetic Twists of Fate” (MIT Press, 2010). Written by renowned geneticists Stanley Fields and Mark Johnston, “Genetic Twists of Fate” tells the stories of real people to help readers make sense of the complex science of genetics.

Readers learn how a tiny piece of DNA can determine how we look and act, and whether we are at risk for diabetes, cancer, depression or obesity. The people whose lives are used as examples range from the famous: the late actress Rita Hayworth with Alzheimer’s disease and newscaster Katie Couric’s late husband with colon cancer; to the ordinary: a mother wrongly accused of poisoning her baby and brothers facing Huntington’s disease, a fatal, inherited malady.

Fields and Johnston also tell the history of genetic science and the scientists who were pioneers. “Genetic Twists of Fate” teaches readers about the science of genetic-based disease in an engaging way. It is the kind of book you will never want to put down.

For an easy to understand, fact-based approach, it’s hard to beat “The Gale Encyclopedia of Genetic Disorders” (Gale, 2010). One in the respected Gale Encyclopedia series, it boasts nearly 2,000 pages in two volumes, covering genetic disorders and related conditions, tests, procedures, treatments and therapies.

Each entry is similarly formatted, with sections for description, genetic profile, symptoms, treatments and prognosis. There is always a glossary and an extremely valuable inset that suggests questions to ask the doctor. From Aarskog syndrome to Zygote, the “Gale Encyclopedia” is the place for nonscientists to start learning about genetic disorders. The “Gale Encyclopedia of Genetic Disorders” is available from Stanford Health Library in both print and electronic formats. The e-book version is available free online at healthlibrary.stanford.edu/resources/ebooksgale.html.

Stanford Health Library is free and open to the public in five locations: Stanford Shopping Center, Stanford Hospital, Stanford’s Cancer Center, the Taube Koret Center for Jewish Life and the Ravenswood Family Health Center.

For more information, call 725-8400, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit healthlibrary.stanford.edu.

Nancy Dickenson is head librarian at Stanford Health Library.

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