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Common misconceptions in genomics

addressing common misconceptions in genomics
realistic image of DNA as double helix
© Wellcome Connecting Science

Sometimes it is not always easy for students to grasp genomics concepts, and this can lead to misconceptions developing. Some of these misconceptions can have developed earlier on in their education, or by picking things up from the media, pop culture and other sources.

Some misconceptions can develop due to the sequencing of the teaching. Often teaching around genetics and genomics is done chronologically starting with Mendal and his peas, but starting with the concepts of genes as units of inheritance rather than the molecular nature of DNA and the genome can lead to misconceptions around how genes work.

Below are some examples of the misconceptions that we have come across and offer some suggestions on how we could avoid or address them. As you read through them, reflect on whether these are misconceptions you have come across before, and how you have or would address it in your teaching.

Example 1: Genes and proteins

“One gene codes for one protein”

Whilst this may have been the prevalent concept in the past, it has now been shown that some genes are capable of coding for slightly different proteins or isoforms. This is quite an advanced topic but for post-16 students it is important they are aware of this and avoid oversimplification.

How would you address this misconception? What could you do to avoid it?

Example 2 : Genes are units that move around the body

“The genes for eye colour are only found in the eyes not anywhere else”

Students often struggle to understand the fact that all our DNA – our genome, is found in most cells of the body rather than the genes directly controlling that part of the body. E.g. eye colour genes are in all cells not just the eyes.

How would you address this misconception?

Example 3 Genetic determinism

“If you have the breast cancer gene, are you definitely going to get cancer?”.

“If you get your genome sequenced will it be able to tell you what you will die of?”

“I read that there are genes for intelligence and being fat?”

These are some examples of questions which students have asked which highlight genetic determinism – the belief that your genes determine your health or even your behaviour.

If these questions or comment come up in a session I like to address with the question “Is your DNA your Destiny?” What do you think?

Example 4: Mutations and Variation

“Changes in your DNA are rare. If you’ve got mutations in your DNA it will be obvious because you’ll look different or be ill.”

“All mutations are bad”

These examples demonstrate students seeing mutations as only harmful. It is important to stress that, in fact, many mutations can be silent, many are neutral variations responsible for differences between individuals, and some are even beneficial.

Have you come across this misconception, how do you address it?

Have you encountered these or any other genomics-related misconceptions with your students?

You will find ‘How we do it’ document in the download area below, with some of our ideas of how to address the misconceptions mentioned in this step.

© Wellcome Connecting Science
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