By 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
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
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.
mutations occur more commonly within the Jewish population.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Photo credit: https://www.cdc.gov/features/school-start-times/index.html