Mike the Mad Biologist

While reading this unclear AP story about the genetics of autism (here’s a clearer version), it struck me that the word allele needs to enter alongside the word gene.

Too often, in popular accounts, we hear people say things like “she was diagnosed with having the breast cancer gene.” This is, of course, ridiculous. There is no breast cancer gene. Instead, some alleles of a gene make you more likely to get breast cancer (an allele is an alternative form of a DNA sequence that is located at a specific position on a specific chromosome).

This isn’t just semantics; I think if the word allele were used, it would make stories easier to understand and the reader more informed about biology. And we need all of the biological literacy we can get.

Comments

  1. #1 Chad
    January 14, 2008

    It’s this common misuse that I partially blame for the fact that ~70% of the students in the neurobiology class I helped teach last year did not know the difference between the two. Even a few honors students didn’t know. I cried a little.

  2. #2 Coin
    January 15, 2008

    I endorse this plan heartily.

    I have been thinking for awhile that the evo/creo debates would be much less annoying if it were not for widespread confusion over the difference between those two terms.

  3. #3 Joshua
    January 17, 2008

    I love the word “allele” so much that I used it in Rebecca‘s Darwinian pick-up line contest. Thanks to which, I now have it on a button on my bag.

    It’s a good word, people should definitely use it more. Correctly, that is.

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