StudentsBy Emily Reisler, Lewis Summer Intern

College is a juggling act: classes, homework, extracurriculars, friends—it’s all-consuming. With full plates and packed schedules, we rarely think about our genes, and for some of us, rarely might even be a stretch. So let me simplify it all. Here are 4 important things we, as a college students, should know about genetics.

1. Each genome is one-of-a-kind.

Genome? What? If this already sounds like gibberish, bear with me and think back to high school biology.

Every cell in the human body contains genes. Genes act as instructions for making proteins, and each protein serves a particular function in the body. For example, some proteins form our hair, some our blood, and some our eyes. Some proteins serve as enzymes and others as hormones. Gene sequences vary from person to person, which is why we all have different traits; it’s why we all look and function differently.

Genes are packaged in units called chromosomes, and we all have two copies of every chromosome, one from dad and one from mom. That means we have two copies of every gene, one from each parent. Changes in gene sequences, or so-called mutations, can occur randomly during one’s lifetime or they can be inherited. Mutations have one of three effects: neutral, beneficial, or harmful.

2. Certain mutations occur more commonly within the Jewish population. 

Inherited mutations can have a “harmful” effect if they lead to genetic diseases, and many of these occur more commonly among Jews. Genetic disorders can follow an autosomal dominant pattern, meaning one mutated copy of a specific gene is enough to cause the condition. Or, they can follow an autosomal recessive pattern, meaning two mutated copies of a specific gene are required to cause the condition. Other patterns of inheritance exist as well.

For autosomal recessive conditions, inheriting one mutated copy and one healthy copy of a specific gene makes you a carrier. Carriers often show no signs or symptoms of the disorder because their healthy copy of the gene compensates for the mutation’s deficiency. However, carriers have special things to consider.

If two carriers of the same condition have a child together, there is a 25% chance each parent will pass down a mutated copy of the gene, resulting in a child with the disorder. To optimize your options when having kids, it helps to know what’s in your genes and what’s in your partner’s genes prior to conception.

Hereditary cancers are another way mutations can have negative effects on the body, and some of these also occur more commonly among Ashkenazi Jews. BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are types of tumor suppressor genes and, when healthy, they code for proteins that slow down cell division, repair DNA mistakes, and tell cells when to die. In sum, they protect our bodies against cancer. When one copy of a BRCA gene is mutated, the healthy copy produces enough functioning proteins, allowing us to fight off cancer. However, when both copies of the BRCA gene are mutated, cells produce none of those tumor-fighting proteins, and cancer develops.

With higher rates of BRCA mutations and increased risk of cancer, it is especially crucial for Ashkenazi Jews to know our family health history and know what’s in our genes. This way we can take proactive measures to protect our health.

3. Knowledge is power.

As you learned in point 2, we as Ashkenazi Jews have higher likelihood of carrying certain harmful mutations, and that comes with increased responsibility. We should all know our genetic risks so we can optimize our health and that of our future families. Unfortunately though, we can’t exactly find that information via Google search.

This is where genetic counseling and screening comes in. Genetic counselors can advise you on whether genetic testing is right for you, which genetic tests to take, explain what the results mean, mitigate anxieties or concerns, and talk you through clinical options. Genetic screening is the actual test that tells you the contents of your genes—what mutations you carry and what risks you have.

These two services should be utilized at the proper time and given the proper circumstances.

4. You are not alone.

Mutations, disorders, and cancers are scary to say the least, but we luckily do not have to navigate the waters alone. Not only can we take advantage of genetic counselors, but we have another helpful resource in Chicago: the Norton & Elaine Sarnoff Center for Jewish Genetics. Among its multifaceted offerings, the Center provides genetic education, access to an in-house genetic counselor, and subsidized carrier screening for recessive disorders. They serve as a reminder that we’re navigating these concerns as a community, relying on one another for sympathy and support, and they help steer our collective towards a healthier, more informed tomorrow. Never hesitate to reach out to them with questions and concerns.

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