Who Gets Sick?


This lesson is intended to help you understand that disease is influenced by genetic factors. You will learn one’s likelihood of inheriting the genes for a particular disease is linked to ancestral makeup—to the particular branches of the human family tree from which one descends. You also will learn that no disease is confined to any particular set of people grouped by “race,” which is a problematic social term linked to skin color, not a biological term.


As a class or individually, watch Science Bulletins: Genes and Health in the video player above. Be prepared to discuss these statements made in the video and to share any questions you have that are raised by these statements. You can use the Who Gets Sick? student sheet to record your thoughts.

  1. “When we use words like ‘black,’ ‘white,’ or ‘race,’ we are not being scientific. We are not being clear. We are looking at the color of their skin instead of their biology.” (0:05, Charles N. Rotimi, Ph.D., the director of the Center for Research on Genetics and Global Health)
  2. “Human genetic variation is the result of groups that have lived isolated from each other for a very long time.” (2:26, Dr. Rotimi)
  3. “We use ancestry right now because it gives us a clue as to where to find the gene that’s involved in the pathogenesis of asthma … When we know those specific genes, we can genetically test each individual and determine what their risk factor is at a given region of the genome, and forget about those notions of race and ethnicity.” (5:25, Esteban Gonzáles Bouchard, M.D., Physician Scientist, Center for Genes, Environments & Health, University of California–San Francisco)
  4. “Asian, European, African, Hispanic—those are all short-hands that will go away with time. When we actually know what genes individuals carry, then we can look at the whole genome in a systematic manner and see if we will find things that may be related to disease or health. And once we are able to do that, then race is completely irrelevant.” (5:59, Dr. Rotimi)

After the discussion, expand on one or more of the above statements on your student sheet.

Visit Health Connections, which is a section of the website, Race: Are We So Different? This section provides an introduction to three complex diseases: sickle cell disease, hypertension, and age-related macular degeneration (AMD). As you read, look for information you can contribute to a class discussion of these concepts, which you can answer on your student sheet:

  1. Describe the effects of each disease.
  2. Describe how genes may contribute to the development of each disease.
  3. Provide an example of how development of the disease can be ameliorated through environmental interventions.
  4. Explain any links between these diseases and a person’s skin color.

When directed by your teacher, take the ten-question Human Variation Quiz.

Knowledge Check

Use these resources to complete the Match Game: Genetics and Sickle Cell Disease student sheet.

This esheet is a part of the Who Gets Sick? lesson.

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