Wagner Genetics Series Spring 2005:
Genetics and Popular Culture

      The science of biology, especially the subdiscipline of genetics, frequently is a central theme in novels and movies. Most people have a favorite storyline or monster-character from a beloved book or film. In this course we will examine several common plot themes that exploit principles of genetics. The lectures will provide explanations of the relevant science and technology as well as video clips from selected films. We will compare the world of science fiction to the real world of scientific investigation in order to determine what scientific achievements have already happened, what is likely to happen, and what is highly improbable. We will also discuss the impact of how genetics is portrayed in popular culture and how these portrayals influence the public perception of genetics and biotechnology.

Image at left from Astrobiology at NASA  http://astrobiology.arc.nasa.gov/

Note: No films will be shown in class although short video clips will be presented to highlight certain points. It is not necessary to view films prior to attending class.

Course Syllabus:

Wednesday, January 19, 2005: Optional introductory lecture
This lecture will provide an overview of fundamental topics in cell biology and genetics that will be referred to during the course. Topics to be covered include cellular structure, DNA structure, and the flow of information from gene to protein.

Wednesday January 26, 2005: Monster of the week  Film = Jurassic Park
From Frankenstein to giant ants to cloned dinosaurs, there are many stories about creating monsters; examples of naturally occurring biological transformations will also be presented.

Wednesdays February 2 and 9, 2005: Designing people  Films = GATTACA, Bladerunner, Twins
Cloning, eugenics, and assisted reproductive technologies – what is the technological status of human genetic engineering?

Wednesdays February 16 and 23, 2005: It’s from outer space  Films = Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, Andromeda Strain
A discussion of the wide-ranging visions of extraterrestrial life forms. The lectures will also cover an introduction to panspermia, which is a theory stating that life in the universe is seeded by microbial organisms or biochemical compounds that travel through space.

Wednesday, March 2, 2005: The process of scientific discovery  Film = Lorenzo's Oil
A look at how scientific research is conducted and life inside the laboratory.

Internet based resources

Internet Movie Database - Read the entries in this database about movies covered in this course or about your favorite films.

Genetics and Popular Culture
Screening DNA - Exploring the Cinema-Genetics Interface - Exploring the Cinema-Genetics Interface by Stephen Nottingham. Copyright © Stephen Nottingham, 2000.
     This online book can serve as a primary reference for topics covered in this course. The online book covers many more films than this course, explores plot themes in greater depth, and introduces the readers to a wider range of genetic technologies.
Genetics, Art and Popular Culture - A listing of artistic works that incorporate themes from modern genetics. Sponsored by the Center for Genetics and Society

Dinosaurs and other fossils
The Virtual Fossil Museum - "Fossils across geological time presented in multiple contexts of geological history, the tree of life, paleobiology and evolution. The Virtual Fossil Museum is an educational resource providing an ever-growing extensive collection of fossil images."

The "Science of Jurassic Park" from the San Diego Natural History Museum - Frequently asked questions inspired by the Jurassic Park films

Dinosaur Hall from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia - Images from the permanent exhibit

Genetic Technologies
Inheritable Genetic Modifications - Information on research and technology with applications to human genetic engineering. Sponsored by the Center for Genetics and Society

Patients Home Page: General information on assisted reproductive technology and other issues related to the human reproductive cycle from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine

Medicine and the New Genetics - A gateway of Internet resources about genomics, medicine and human health as well as information about the Human Genome Project. From The Human Genome Program of the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science.

The Science of Genetic Testing -Online publications from the National Institutes of Health about genetic testing for prenatal diagnosis and disease screening.

Life in Outer Space
Astrobiology at NASA -This NASA web site reviews the biological aspects of NASA's research including the study of life on earth, investigation of the origin of life on earth, and the search for potential life forms in the universe.

Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, SETI - a non-profit organization dedicated to the exploration of the "origin, nature, and prevalence of life in the universe."

Exploration of Mars - images and data from the MARS Exploration Rover Mission


Return to the homepage for the Genetics Series at the Wagner Free Institute of Science

Latest update: February 16, 2005
Questions? Email Mary Beth Davis.