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May 2012


Chromosomal crossover is a biological mechanism to combine parental traits. It is perhaps the first mechanism ever taught in any introductory biology class. The formulation of crossover, and resulting recombination, came about 100 years after Mendel's famous experiments. To a great extent, this formulation is consistent with the basic genetic findings of Mendel. More importantly, it provides a mathematical insight for his two laws (and corrects them). From a mathematical perspective, and while it retains similarities, genetic recombination guarantees diversity so that we do not rapidly converge to the same being. It is this diversity that made the study of biology possible. In particular, the problem of genetic mapping and linkage—one of the first efforts towards a computational approach to biology—relies heavily on the mathematical foundation of crossover and recombination. Nevertheless, as students we often overlook the mathematics of these phenomena. Emphasizing the mathematical aspect of Mendel's laws through crossover and recombination will prepare the students to make an early realization that biology, in addition to being experimental, IS a computational science. This can serve as a first step towards a broader curricular transformation in teaching biological sciences. I will show that a simple and modern treatment of Mendel's laws using a Markov chain will make this step possible, and it will only require basic college-level probability and calculus. My personal teaching experience confirms that students WANT to know Markov chains because they hear about them from bioinformaticists all the time. This entire exposition is based on three homework problems that I designed for a course in computational biology. A typical reader is, therefore, an instructional staff member or a student in a computational field (e.g., computer science, mathematics, statistics, computational biology, bioinformatics). However, other students may easily follow by omitting the mathematically more elaborate parts. I kept those as separate sections in the exposition.


This work was originally published in PLoS Computational Biology, available at doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002462.


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