Did you ever wonder why you have the same allergies as your father? Or questioned whether you really would eventually turn into a worry-wart like your mother?

One group of medical professionals who are dedicated to helping you answer questions about your family health is Genetic Counsellors.

Genetics is a field of science that investigates traits that are able to be passed on between generations, also known as being heritable. These traits are encoded in genes, which are packed into 46 chromosomes. Imagine this information is an instruction manual on how the human body works. The genes are the words, the chromosomes are the chapters and the molecular chemicals work as punctuation to tell the body how to express its unique blueprint.

Did You Know?
The human genome contains approximately 23,000 genes, and is largely similar to the genome of a mouse (that's why mice are often used in laboratories to study human diseases).

A gene is a region of DNA, in which information is stored as a code made up of four chemical bases: adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T). It is the sequence of these four bases along the DNA that encodes the information. These bases are like letters that form words (genes).

Did You Know?
Human DNA consists of about three billion bases, and 99 per cent of their sequence is identical in all people.

Our health is an expression of both our genes and our environment — a combination of these factors will determine what your overall health will be. A Genetic Counsellor can help you to understand the risk of inheriting certain disorders or traits, and help to find specific ways to manage them. No genetic test can predict with 100 per cent accuracy what will happen to you, however based on studying the results of others with a similar genetic pattern as yourself, they may be able to determine the chance that certain traits will be seen.

The areas of medicine that Genetic Counsellors most often assist in are:

Prenatal care — this involves the screening of pregnant women and their babies to prepare the parents for any possible genetic abnormalities.

Congenital Disorders — investigating medical problems and searching for the genetic causes.

Cancer studies — examining family histories for patterns of cancer and determining appropriate tests to help in preventative care or treatment.

Most genetic counselors in Canada have a graduate degree in genetic counseling and take an examination to be certified with the Canadian Association of Genetic Counsellors (CAGC).

So if you enjoy both molecular biology and personal interaction, this career path may be for you. As the study of genetics continues to progress you may be one step closer to finding out what you really inherited from your parents!

Article first published on January 24, 2010.

Alexandra Silveira

I just received my PhD from the pathology department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I currently live in Providence, Rhode Island and co-manage the Entertainment section of CurioCity. In my spare time I read about science, watch horrible comedies, and am an aspiring Rock Band rock star.


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