What Is A Gene?

‘Gene’ is not a typical four-letter word. It is not offensive. It is never bleeped out of TV shows. And where the meaning of most fourletter words is all too clear, that of gene is not. The more expert scientists become in molecular genetics, the less easy it is to be sure about what, if anything, a gene actually is.

Rick Young, a geneticist at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says that when he first started teaching as a young professor two decades ago, it took him about two hours to teach fresh-faced undergraduates what a gene was and the nuts and bolts of how it worked.

Today, he and his colleagues need three months of lectures to convey the concept of the gene, and that’s not because the students are any less bright. “It takes a whole semester to teach this stuff to talented graduates,” Young says. “It used to be we could give a one-off definition and now it’s much more complicated.”

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