Understanding Genetics: DNA, Genes, and Their Real-World Applications

Course No. 1533
Professor David Sadava, Ph.D.
City of Hope Medical Center, Claremont Colleges
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Course No. 1533
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Beginning with a cell, explore the physical and chemical environment of a gene.
  • numbers Follow the Human Genome Project's past, present, and future - starting with the 24,000 genes expressed in every human.
  • numbers Explore how scientists can extract DNA from fossils to learn about extinct creatures.
  • numbers Delve into the implications of stem cell research and cloning, and what they could mean for our future.

Course Overview

We use it routinely to cure diseases, solve crimes, and reunite families. Yet we've known about it for only 60 years. And what we're continuing to learn about it every day has the potential to transform our health, our nutrition, our society, and our future. What is this powerful mystery?

It is DNA—deoxyribonucleic acid, the self-replicating material present in nearly all living organisms. Award-winning teacher, author, and cancer researcher Dr. David Sadava unlocks its mysteries in his new course, Understanding Genetics: DNA, Genes, and Their Real-World Applications. He guides us through decades of scientific discovery and the weighty implications for us, as individuals and as a society.

< p>Genetics: The Science of Heredity

How are the traits of an organism—be it a fern or a human father—passed on to its offspring? This course outlines the history of the science of genetics and explains in detail what we have learned in recent decades about the building blocks—DNA.

Dr. Sadava, a working scientist who draws on examples from his own research, shows us how understanding genetics allows us to improve medical treatment and nutrition, vastly improving our health and quality of life.

Understanding genetics is also a critical step toward understanding our human identity. Examining our DNA—how it works and what happens when something goes wrong—enables us to see the roots of how our bodies work, why we get sick, and how traits are passed through families.

Enjoy this rare opportunity to peer over the shoulder of a working scientist; learn how he puzzles through the problems of genetics to find meaningful solutions that can save lives. Dr. Sadava shares cutting-edge research guided by his passion to help laypeople understand the meaning and importance of genetics.

Genetics' Long and Fascinating History

Our understanding of human development has certainly evolved since ancient Greek times, when Aristotle thought that the ingredients in semen were reorganized by menstrual fluid during intercourse to produce an embryo. And as late as the 17th century, Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek thought he saw tiny, fully formed babies when he looked under a microscope at sperm.

Other past civilizations, however, knew more about genetics than we might think. For example, Egyptians successfully bred the date palm 4,000 years ago to improve the quality and quantity of their fruit crop. In Asia and the Near East 3,500 years ago, horses were bred for speed in racing.

But while humans have worked to improve plant and animal characteristics for thousands of years, we've only come to truly understand what genes are made of and how they work during the past century.

Insight into a Puzzle

Understanding genetics is like sitting down to work a massive puzzle. With each piece you examine, think through, and solve, you glean a new and amazing insight into humanity. Put several pieces together, and you can treat or cure a disease, save a developing fetus from a fatal birth defect, catch a criminal, or reunite a family.

DNA, genes, proteins, amino acids, and enzymes are the vocabulary of our being—what goes on inside our bodies and how our genes are expressed. To learn this vocabulary is to be conversant in who we are and what we can become.

To help us understand the role of proteins in DNA, Professor Sadava cites the example of boiling an egg. A protein's shape is sensitive to its surroundings and can be changed by heat. When you boil an egg—made of a protein called albumin—the heat of the water changes the albumin's structure to create a completely different consistency. As Professor Sadava reminds us, "You can't unboil an egg; changes are irreversible." Next time you're making egg salad, just think—you've transformed a protein!

Dr. Sadava loves to tell tales, and the stories he uses to introduce each lecture are the highlight of the course. He weaves in history, true crime, case studies of people with life-threatening diseases, and phenomena from the natural world to make genetics come to life. Then he steadfastly supports each story with explanatory science.

Professor Sadava deftly introduces us to the puzzle that is genetics, and shows how unlocking each piece helps solve significant real-world problems that affect everyone.

Each lecture begins with a helpful story that illustrates the importance of genetics. The course explicitly outlines the connections between the science of genetics and the health-related problems that plague us in modern society, and illuminates how studying genetics can be instrumental in solving those problems.

While Understanding Genetics is a vigorous and briskly paced course, you won't need a background in biology or chemistry. You'll feel challenged, but you won't be left behind. Professor Sadava is passionate about his subject and extremely knowledgeable.

Genetics in the News

Should we allow cloning? How can we treat obesity? Why do different ethnic groups have higher rates of particular diseases than others? Countless questions of biology prompt heated discussions in the classroom, the legislature, and the courtroom. Obtaining a basic and current knowledge of how genetics works helps inform our ideas and opinions on these important issues.

Many of us are touched by diseases caused by genetic mutations or flaws—such as cystic fibrosis, diabetes, cancer, and sickle cell anemia. In the face of life-threatening, debilitating diseases, Professor Sadava gives us hope through research and discoveries made every day in the field of genetics.

He tells the story of one couple whose young son had cystic fibrosis, the most common inherited disease. Genetic testing prior to their next pregnancy enabled them to implant an embryo without the cystic fibrosis genes into the mother's uterus. The result: the couple was able to have a healthy daughter.

Only in the past few decades have scientists begun to discover and isolate the particular genes that cause certain diseases or conditions and to conduct the research that enables us to actually change genetics.

As Professor Sadava reminds us throughout the course, genetics is not destiny. How we grow and develop is strongly influenced by our environment. But understanding genetics provides us with a wealth of information that can help improve the health and quality of life for everyone.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Our Inheritance
    From earliest history, humans have bred plants and animals for desirable and productive characteristics. And they have wondered how it all works. Professor Sadava gives us a brief, fascinating history of genetics and introduces us to the three major unifying ideas in biological science, ideas which form the cornerstone of this course. x
  • 2
    Mendel and Genes
    Monk and scientist Gregor Mendel, working in the late 1800s, learned through pea-plant experiments that each parent's characteristics were particulate, that is, chemically independent. His meticulous research—the beginning of modern genetics—languished for nearly 40 years before its value was discovered. x
  • 3
    Genes and Chromosomes
    Where do you find a gene? Within each living cell is a nucleus, within the nucleus is a chromosome, and on that chromosome is the gene. Beginning with the cell, the unit of biological continuity, this lecture describes the physical and chemical environment of the gene. It shows us that you don't have to be a geneticist to figure out genetics, as a group of rabbis in A.D. 500 learned. x
  • 4
    The Search for the Gene—DNA
    How did research on smoking and lung cancer help scientists figure out that DNA, the genetic material, was damaged in the tumor cells? Professor Sadava tells us how scientists first determined what they were looking for and then found the circumstantial evidence that pointed to DNA. x
  • 5
    DNA Structure and Replication
    The double helix model for DNA is one of the most recognizable scientific icons of our time. This lecture details how Watson and Crick built on the work of earlier researchers to solve the puzzle of the structure of DNA—the double helix. x
  • 6
    DNA Expression in Proteins
    Proteins are made up of chains of 20 amino acids ordered in a particular sequence for each protein. Humans cannot produce eight of those 20 amino acids, although we still need them for proper nutrition. Professor Sadava explains what proteins are, how they relate to DNA, and why they're significant to us. x
  • 7
    Genes, Enzymes, and Metabolism
    Enzymes, which are encoded in our genes, are responsible for most chemical conversions in our bodies. An enzyme sends a signal that creates a biochemical pathway for the process of changing something we consume into something else we need or must get rid of. This lecture explains how metabolism is hard-wired into our genes. x
  • 8
    From DNA to Protein
    In 2004 traces of a poison called ricin were found in a U.S. Senate mailroom. Only 1/10,000 of an ounce of ricin can be fatal. Ricin's enzymes inhibit gene expression; as a result, when ricin is introduced to animal cells, the cells die. This lecture explains how gene expression happens. x
  • 9
    The 24,000 genes that are expressed in humans represent only 2 percent of the entire genome. This lecture explains the history of the Human Genome Project, which grew out of scientists' studies on the effects of radiation on the survivors of the atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. x
  • 10
    Manipulating Genes—Recombinant DNA
    By studying how bacteria successfully protect themselves from an attacking virus, scientists discovered that bacteria make an enzyme that recognizes a particular DNA sequence in the virus and cuts the DNA strand at that sequence. As a result of this discovery, scientists learned to splice DNA, creating recombinant DNA, which was initially controversial and now holds vast possibilities for the future. x
  • 11
    Isolating Genes and DNA
    Learn how genetics is used to understand and work toward the cure of a particular disease. After methods for analyzing DNA and chromosomes were developed rapidly in the 1980s, the scientific community tried a new approach called reverse genetics. As a result of this work, scientists isolated the gene that is missing in individuals who have muscular dystrophy. x
  • 12
    Biotechnology—Genetic Engineering
    Insulin that treated individuals with diabetes, whose bodies don't create insulin (or enough of it) on their own, used to come from animals. Animal insulin, however, contains a different sequence of amino acids, so some people's bodies rejected it. The method of manufacturing insulin developed at a California hospital is how all insulin used to treat diabetics is now made. x
  • 13
    Biotechnology and the Environment
    We can use bacteria to solve man-made problems, such as landmines, oil spills, toxic waste, and pollution. Scientists are working to genetically engineer organisms whose traits can be useful in cleaning up our world. x
  • 14
    Manipulating DNA by PCR and Other Methods
    What's the real science behind the dinosaurs that come to life in the movie Jurassic Park? Professor Sadava explains how scientists extract DNA from fossils, and what we can learn about ancient creatures from their genes. This lecture also covers DNA sequencing methods. x
  • 15
    DNA in Identification—Forensics
    In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, hundreds of children were separated from their parents. When several couples were claiming one baby as their own, DNA testing enabled doctors to reunite the real parents with their baby. This kind of testing is frequently used in crime-solving today. x
  • 16
    DNA and Evolution
    Charles Darwin's travels to the Galapagos Islands helped him understand that different species come from a common ancestor. This lecture explains the genetic components of Darwin's theories. x
  • 17
    DNA and Human Evolution
    Sickle cell disease is more frequently found in African Americans than in Caucasians. After studying this incurable condition, scientists discovered that carriers of sickle cell disease were resistant to malaria, a far more life-threatening sickness. Why? In this lecture, Professor Sadava explores the role of genetic adaptation in human evolution. x
  • 18
    Molecular Medicine—Genetic Screening
    How do scientists detect particular genes that cause certain diseases? Professor Sadava details chemical processes used for genetic screening, and gives several examples of successful genetic tests and results. He describes testing for the effects of genes on drug susceptibility as the next frontier in screening technology. x
  • 19
    Molecular Medicine—The Immune System
    George Washington stemmed a smallpox epidemic by ordering his soldiers to be inoculated during an outbreak. Fifty years earlier, the slave Onesimus had advised Cotton Mather, the Puritan minister, of the practice in his homeland of rubbing dried pus from a smallpox carrier onto a cut of a healthy person. This process created antibodies that resisted the disease. Professor Sadava uses these illustrations to explain how our cells fight disease. x
  • 20
    Molecular Medicine—Cancer
    Cancer develops when cells lose control over their normally regulated reproduction. Only 10 percent of cancers are inherited, but it is a genetic disease. This lecture explains how cancer cells are created and how they can be treated. x
  • 21
    Molecular Medicine—Gene Therapy
    So far gene therapy—the process of adding protein-coding DNA and a promoter sequence for its expression to an organism for medical benefit—has experienced some success in animals and small gains in humans. Professor Sadava shares cutting-edge research and experimentation. x
  • 22
    Molecular Medicine—Cloning and Stem Cells
    Stem cells and cloning are both controversial topics in the news. How do they really work? What is the science behind these genetic procedures, and what are their implications for us? x
  • 23
    Genetics and Agriculture
    Just three crops—corn, rice, and wheat—make up two-thirds of the world's food supply. Learn in this lecture how genetic experimentation on grains has resulted in significant increases in crop yields, which has meaningful ramifications for feeding the world's hungry. x
  • 24
    Biotechnology and Agriculture
    Changes in our environment affect the plants we grow and thus the food we eat. Biotechnology has enabled us to manipulate plants to adapt to different conditions, such as tomatoes that grow in salty soil. This final lecture explores the opportunities and controversies surrounding genetically modified plants. x

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Your professor

David Sadava

About Your Professor

David Sadava, Ph.D.
City of Hope Medical Center, Claremont Colleges
Dr. David Sadava is Adjunct Professor of Cancer Cell Biology at the City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte, CA, and the Pritzker Family Foundation Professor of Biology, Emeritus, at The Claremont Colleges. Professor Sadava graduated from Carleton University as the science medalist with a B.S. with first-class honors in biology and chemistry. A Woodrow Wilson Fellow, he earned a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of...
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Understanding Genetics: DNA, Genes, and Their Real-World Applications is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 74.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Ancient history I was disappointed to learn the course was made back in 2008. For a new science like genetics that's a long time and it shows. The course needs to be updated; the company should send me some amendments to make the course timely. I may or may not recommend this to a friend--depends on the friend's knowledge base
Date published: 2020-09-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Understanding Genetics I wondered if I would be able to follow the content. So far it has been understandable, although very technical. I'm extremely happy to have bought this course.
Date published: 2020-07-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good I find this lecture course very educative and interesting.
Date published: 2020-06-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course This is another great course with excellent lectures. This is a good way to accumulate more knowledge in an enjoyable experience.
Date published: 2020-06-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from informative and entertaining Great couse and beats watching the news during these difficult Coronavirus times. Presentation was very well done by an outstanding Professor.
Date published: 2020-04-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Presents a good understanding I have viewed half the lectures so far and have found Dr. Sadava's method of teaching easy to understand and interesting by his use of relavant stories. I have studied some genetics back in 1978 while taking biochemistry and I wanted to update my basic knowledge. I feel that I am half way there and I found the history of genetics interesting as back in 78 we were learning some state of the art science.
Date published: 2020-02-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A bit dated, but a very good introduction I have listened to a number of the Great Courses series on biology (Biology: The Science of Life, Dr. Sapolsky's Biology and Human Behavior, Dr. Leary's Mysteries of Human Behavior, Dr. Robinson's (quite poor) Great Ideas of Psychology, Dr. King's Biological Anthropology, Dr. Larson's Evolution: history of controversy, and a number of others). I've also taken both undergraduate Biology and organic chemistry. I was afraid that this course would be duplicative of much of what I already knew. But it was on sale and I thought I would listen to it. Much of Dr. Sadava's course is covered in other courses by the TC, but much of this course was new to me. I should note that I listened to the audio of the course. Some reviewers complained about the video presentation, and I can't comment on that. Dr. Sadava did not seem nervous or flustered on the audio, though I would agree that many of his jokes fall flat. Still, it didn't bother me overmuch. "Dad jokes", as my son would say. They were not too distracting. I also thought, in contrast to a number of (rather strident) reviewers, that he was fairly well balanced in his presentation of the pros and cons of genetic research. In fact, for a scientist (i.e., someone who both makes his living in the area, but also someone who is far better informed than most of us - including said reviewers) I thought his presentation bent over backwards to present a critical view of genetic research. I learned a great deal from the course. Once we got past lecture 8 (lectures 1-8 lay out the history of the discovery of and basics of DNA) virtually everything he covered was new to me. To list some specifics of what was new and interesting: the mechanisms of gene manipulation, the mechanism of DNA ID and DNA testing (Dr. Sadava couldn't have imagined in 2008 that I would be listening to his course with a full genetic report from both 23 and me and National Geographic for less than $150 each - but I had no idea how the testing was actually done or what it's actually showing), or all the stuff about genetic medicine and what GMO is actually all about. Overall, this is a good course. I'd love to be able to give it 3.5 stars. The content is so good, but it is dated. Also, Dr. Sadava, while a very adequate presenter, is not the dynamic, engrossing teacher that many of the Teaching Company professors are. It really does deserve more than three stars, but maybe falls just short of four. But I definitely recommend the course in the absence of an update. P.S. - having read some of the reviewers, some of whom list themselves as "intermediate" level of subject knowledge, I'd hate to see their expectations of "advanced" level of knowledge. I've listed myself as an intermediate learner, but I couldn't quote chapter and verse for crspr ... stuff.
Date published: 2019-11-23
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Out of date Professor Sadava does a fine job presenting the material. Unfortunately the field of genetics is moving so fast that the material is dated. Without a discussion of developments since the course was released, particularly crispr-cas9, which has had a profound effect on what can be done with genetics, the course is now incomplete.
Date published: 2019-11-17
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