20,000 genes a surprise? Heck, this guy knew that long ago

Hawks headshot.png

John Hawks, in his paleodreams. I mean that in the best way.

John Hawks bumps into a prescient estimate of the total gene number in humans:

While doing some other research, I ran across a remarkable short paper by James Spuhler, “On the number of genes in man,” printed in Science in 1948. We’ve been hearing for the last ten years how the low gene count in humans — only 20,000 or so genes — is “surprising” to scientists who had previously imagined that humans would have many more genes than this. So here’s the next to the last line of Spuhler’s article: On the basis of these speculations there are then some 19,890-30,420 gene loci in man. He actually estimated the total gene number in two ways. The first, based on estimates of chromosome length in Drosophila and humans, coupled with Bridges’ estimate of fruit fly gene number (5000), led to an estimate of 42,000 genes in humans. This means of estimation was probably closer to those that later suggested a high gene number in humans.

I love this. The history of science is almost always richer and more variant than we imagine.

Hawks amends:

That estimate also gives the lie to the idea that geneticists always expected a very high gene count in humans. What’s remarkable to me is that the entire means of estimation required no knowledge of gene sequences or DNA; the estimates required only epidemiology coupled with cytological estimates of chromosome lengths.

More at Hawks’ blog, including the linkless old-school ref:

Spuhler JN. 1948. On the number of genes in man. Science 108:279-280.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *