Inquisitive Hanuman Scifun and his sister Kiran wonder why it is that babies may have their mother’s curly hair, and yet, not their father’s fair skin, but instead, get their grandfather’s dark tan
Professor Tung Tang had got used to Hanuman and Kiran’s early visits. With their municipality school closed because of the COVID 19 related lockdown, they hopped into Professor’s house early each day.
So he was just about missing them, when they barged in through the garden at mid-day.
“So late– the two of you today? You can help yourselves to some chocolates on the dining table,” he said, his deep voice resonating through his scrambled-up lab.
“Our neighbour aunty gave birth to a baby boy a few days ago. She has come back from the hospital and we all went to see the baby.
“Professor, the tiny one has curly black hair, just like aunty’s. But the baby is also quite dark like his grandfather, though his father is fair. How did he get it? Why is he not fair like his father?” Kiran asked, while following Hanuman to the pound on the box of chocolates.
“Genes, dear” said Professor Tung Tang affectionately.
“The same cloth that our pants are made of?” Hanuman asked, picking up a large bar of chocolate and looking at the Professor with furrows on his forehead while he munched on it.
“No! Genes are chemicals that influence what we look like on the outside and how we work in the inside.
“They contain the information our bodies need to make chemicals called proteins which form the structure of our body,” the professor smiled.
“But what are genes made of, professor?” Hanuman asked, still trying to understand, for all kids confuse these days between genes and jeans!
“The genes instruct how the proteins in the cell will be formed and how they will function – whether the bones will be short or long, hair will be black or brown or the earlobes will be long or short,” Professor said as he got up, and started trying out another musical innovation
“Well, have you heard of DNA?”
“Yes professor, I read about it somewhere, deoxy something acid,” Kiran interjected, a white milky bar in hand while she concentrated on some of the new books that Professor had bought just before the lockdown.
“Yes deoxyribonucleic acid – a chemical shaped like two stair cases winding around each other. The structure is called a double helix,” Professor Tung Tang helped her while fiddling with one of his musical instruments.
The worthy professor was nicknamed Tung Tang because of his passion for meddling with various musical instruments, some of which he made to his own fancy.
“Could you show us how it looks like professor?” Kiran asked, lifting her face from the books. She loved to draw and preferred to see things visually.
Professor fished for his mobile phone and searched for the structure of the DNA as brother and sister bent over to look at it.
“Oh, that looks like a nice toy,” Hanuman insisted as a few colourful structures of the DNA popped up.
“Could we make a musical instrument with a similar structure—something like a harp?” Kiran asked before putting the last bit of the chocolate bar inside her mouth.
“A nice idea to try,” Professor nodded his head vigorously.
“And where are these found?” Hanuman was still devouring his bit of the sweet.
“Well, they are so small you can’t see them and they are hidden inside tiny, spaghetti-like structures called chromosomes inside the cells.
“Cells are what your body is made of…billions of cells and each cell contains about 20,000 to 25,000 genes,” Professor said while tightening the keys of a strange musical instrument he had made.
“So how do these genes tell the mum’s stomach about the colour of hair of the baby?” Hanuman’s thoughts trailed back to the little baby he had seen.
“Well, as the baby is formed in the mum’s womb, each gene is given a special job to do.
“The DNA carries information and genes spells out specific instructions—much like your art book instructions. These instruction help to make molecules called proteins in the cells that the baby’s body is made of.
“Proteins are the building blocks for everything in your body. Bones and teeth, hair and earlobes, muscles and blood, are all made up of proteins.
“The genes instruct how the proteins in the cell will be formed and how they will function – whether the bones will be short or long, hair will be black or brown or the earlobes will be long or short.”
The Professor got up, picked up a bamboo piece from among many lying in a corner of his lab and started sizing it for another musical innovation.
“Oh, so the different genes are like our subject teachers and the proteins are their students like us, acting on what the teacher genes tells it to do,” Hanuman had by now etched out his own picture of the gene-protein relationship.
“And do you know that scientists like Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, Thomas Hunt Morgan, Frederick Griffith, George Wells Beadle, Oswald Avery, Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Francis Crick and worked tirelessly to help us know about the gene,” Kiran was suddenly out from her world of books.
“Yes, it would be good to know what some of them actually did to help us know ourselves better. Charles Darwin first showed that organisms come from a common ancestral organism and members of a population who are better adapted to the environment survive.
“Gregor Mendel with his experiment on peas showed how indivisible ‘factors’ carry hereditary information. Oswald Avery showed that genes consisted of DNA. Rosaling Franklin, James Watson, Francis Crick found the fascinating structure of the DNA that you propose as a harp,” Professor continued pausing with the name of each scientist as Kiran looked on attentively.
“Wonder how they did it?” she said at last.
“Well, we have moved ahead so much that now genes can be regulated by cloning, mapping, splitting and engineering and these can help treatment of diseases,” Professor said with a satisfied look at the bamboo piece.
But Hanuman was hardly listening. His mind was now hopping between the cuddly little neighbour and the information stored in the tiny genes in his body. He was trying to make a connection between the two.
Now he started wondering, where had he got all his genes from and what did they tell his mummy when he was inside her tummy!
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Archita specialises in science communication, and in this series she has created for children, she uses three fictional characters, Hanuman, a bit of an imp, his elder sister Kiran and Professor Tung Tang, a scientist who meddles in musical instruments.