Soay sheep genetics for beginners

I have a confession to make:  it is not always easy being married to a professional geneticist.  To be sure, it was fun to watch Steve put the Open Flockbook Project together and it is heart-warming to get e-mails from breeders who are able to put together authentic conservation breeding groups or find the Soay they want to buy using the online database.  The downside is that well-meaning Soay breeders ask me questions all the time, assuming Mrs. Flockmeister also understands genetics, and let me tell you, Mendelian genetics is hard to fake.  My years as a trial lawyer and piano player taught me a lot about bluffing and I suppose I should be grateful for the opportunity to keep these skills from rusting.  But I am embarrassed to say I did not pay attention in biology class in high school and I started out this Soay sheep caper knowing zero about recessives and gametes and double helices.

And so it was out of self-defense that I recently went on the web looking for places to read about the genetics of inheritance in order to understand why it is that Grace gave us a light-phase ram lamb and Celadon surprised me her first year with a black lamb.  I know, I can always ask Steve, and how lucky I am to have this resource right in my own home.   Don’t get me wrong.  It is great being able to ask the professor without waiting for office hours.  But after six decades of this life business, my powers of retention are shot, and I am too proud to ask Steve to explain what a chromosome is for the umpteenth time.   

Finding good sources of information was easier than I thought it would be.  I was not interested in a book so heavy it would serve better as a doorstop, nor one that consisted of nothing more than stick figures and cartoon balloons above dividing cells.  I have read Genetics for Dummies and its section on patterns of inheritance does not take you very far.  What I wanted was something I could work my way through in the mornings over a cup of coffee and without the distractions of chores or piano practicing.  There doubtless are dozens of similar sites, but three I found without much effort helped me and I hope they will help you, too.  They should give you enough background and knowledge of the jargon to make you more comfortable about what’s going on with color and horns and other characteristics of your Soay, without falling into the black hole of academic genetics that swallowed up Steve decades ago.

Morgan, a multimedia tutorial from Rutgers University, covers the basic principles of  genetics.   Each chapter has ten distinct parts you can work through at your own pace and then test yourself with their short quiz to see if you “get it.”  

Dr. Steven Carr, Department of Biology, Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada, has put together a dandy one-page chart of Mendelian rules summarizing the definitions and basic rules of inheritance.  It is a little intimidating at first because cramming so much information onto one page makes it pretty dense to read, but if you work your way carefully through the chart and the definitions, you will end up smarter at the end of the page than when you started.  It is a good place to look back at for a refresher when someone starts yattering about “double heterozygotes” just when you are trying to finish cooking dinner. 

The American Mathematical Society has put together a detailed but not fatally technical summary of molecular biology and genetics.  It is a good “next step” after the first two sources.  You will need to read it when you are rested, as the typeface is maddeningly small and they wasted no time on the niceties of page layout, but it is rich in content and provides an overall context for the narrower issues of horn shape and fleece color we all face with our Soay sheep. 

It may be that simply living in the same house with a geneticist for over 36 years has skewed my notions of beginning genetics, so I would appreciate if you let me know whether you find these sources useful.  In any case, I promise there will not be a quiz next week, or any time soon.     

For now …