Why study genetics? There are two basic reasons. First, genetics occupies a pivotal position in the entire subject of biology. Therefore, for any serious student of plant, animal, or microbial life, an understanding of genetics is essential. Second, genetics, like no other scientific discipline, is central to numerous aspects of human affairs. It touches our humanity in many different ways. Indeed, genetic issues seem to surface daily in our lives, and no thinking person can afford to be ignorant of its discoveries. In this chapter, we take an overview of the science of genetics, showing how it has come to occupy its crucial position. In addition, we provide a perspective from which to view the subsequent chapters.

First, we need to define what genetics is. Some define it as the “study of heredity,” but hereditary phenomena were of interest to humans long before biology or genetics existed as the scientific disciplines that we know today. Ancient peoples were improving plant crops and domesticated animals by selecting desirable individuals for breeding. They also must have puzzled about the inheritance of individuality in humans and asked such questions as “Why do children resemble their parents?”
and “How can various diseases run in families?” But these people could not be called “geneticists.” Genetics as a set of principles and analytical procedures did not begin until the 1860s, when an Augustinian monk named Gregor Mendel (Figure 1-1) performed a set of experiments that pointed to the existence of biological elements that we now call genes. The word genetics comes from the word “gene,” and genes are the focus of the subject. Whether geneticists study at the molecular, cellular, organismal, family, population, or evolutionary level, genes are always central in their studies. Simply stated, genetics is the study of genes.

What is a gene? A gene is a section of a threadlike double-helical molecule called deoxyribonucleic acid, abbreviated DNA. The discovery of genes and the understanding of their molecular structure and function have been sources of profound insight into two of the biggest mysteries of biology:

1. What makes a species what it is? We know that cats always have kittens and people always have babies. This commonsense observation naturally leads to questions about the determination of the properties of a species. The determination must be hereditary
because, for example, the ability to have kittens is inherited by every generation of cats.

2. What causes variation within a species? We can distinguish one another as well as our own pet cat from other cats. Such differences within a species require explanation. Some of these distinguishing features are clearly familial; for example, animals of a certain unique color often have offspring with the same color, and in human families, certain features, such as the shape of the nose, definitely “run in the family.” Hence we might suspect that a hereditary component explains at least some of the variation
within a species.

The answer to the first question is that genes dictate the inherent properties of a species. The products of most genes are specific proteins. Proteins are the main macromolecules of an organism. When you look at an organism, what you see is either a protein or something that has been made by a protein. The amino acid sequence of a protein is encoded in a gene. The timing and rate of production of proteins and other cellular components are a function both of the genes within the cells and of the environment in which the organism is developing and functioning.

The answer to the second question is that any one gene can exist in several forms that differ from one another, generally in small ways. These forms of a gene are called alleles. Allelic variation causes hereditary variation within a species. At the protein level, allelic variation becomes protein variation.

The next sections of this chapter show how genes influence the inherent properties of a species and how
allelic variation contributes to variation within a species. These sections are an overview; most of the details will be presented in later chapters.

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