Approximately 13% of all questions about biology on the MCAT cover genetics and evolution. Considering biology is the most heavily covered topic on the MCAT, questions covering genetics represent a large portion of the overall exam. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) content categories, students should have an understanding of “transmission of heritable information from generation to generation and the processes that increase genetic diversity” (n.d).
At our college, genetics is the main focus of two lecture classes, both of which are taught by Dr. Keane. The first course in the genetics series is BIOL 230, and it is typically taken in the spring of a student’s second year on campus. The second course in the genetics series is BIOL 450, and it is an upper-division elective course mostly taken by post-bacs and third/fourth year students. This year, BIOL 450 is being offered during the fall semester, despite being only offered during the spring semester last year.
BIOL 230 begins with an overview of genes, genomes, and genetic analysis by diving into DNA’s structure. After covering the basics of DNA structure and properties, genetic variation is studied by first investigating Mendelian genetics then moving onto Nonmendelian genetic inheritance patterns. The semester continues by learning about mutation, repair, and recombination prior to ending on the topics of the cell cycle, cancer genetics, and the genetic basis of complex traits.
Compared to BIOL 230, BIOL 450 has a heavier focus on the clinical application of genetics in the modern world. In addition to material regarding DNA structure being revisited at the beginning of the course, the course has an emphasis on real world examples. For instance, research assignments involve studying prenatal screening techniques, different classifications of cancer-causing mutations, and the hallmarks of cancer. While the hallmarks of cancer are covered in the lower-division genetics course as well, reading through a research article covering this topic is good practice for understanding the science passages that may appear on the MCAT.
Dr. Keane emphasizes the importance of genetics in the future of healthcare because the role of genomic testing to diagnose diseases in the clinical setting will only continue to become more ubiquitous as time progresses. Direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies such as 23andMe, Ambry Genetics, and Counsyl have sparked an interest in personal genomics. Ethical concerns surrounding these companies will surely expand as they develop into larger markets across the globe. For example, issues regarding whether people should know/not know the diagnosis of their genetic disorders, or whether they should have children if they are afflicted with a genetic disorder are two primary examples of the ethical problems regarding clinical genomics. Dr. Keane’s genetics series gives students an in-depth understanding of the science behind these technologies and an informed, balanced viewpoint to tackle concerns surrounding the diagnosis methods of tomorrow’s healthcare.
Reference: (n.d). Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems: Content Category 1C, Association of American Medical Colleges. Retrieved from: https://students-residents.aamc.org/applying-medical-school/article/mcat-2015-content-category-1c/
Background cover art credit: https://www.newscientist.com/term/dna/