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Science: human genetics and health issues

This course deals with a subject of importance to us all – our genes, which is an area at the forefront of developments in medical science. You’ll examine the patterns of inheritance of genes, how genes function and why there are differences between individuals and between populations. Science: human genetics and health issues is one of a series of 100-hour flexible online courses introducing fascinating topics in science. It allows you to learn about this topic just for interest and enables you to try out a new area of study before you commit yourself to further study. You can register and begin this course at any time and will have at least 6 months to complete it.

Standalone study only

You will not be awarded credits for studying this course. It is available for standalone study only and cannot be counted towards an OU qualification.

Short course

Short course code
This is a non-credit bearing course.
Study method
Distance Learning
Short course cost
See Registration
Entry requirements
See Entry requirements

What you will study

Our characters, including our appearance, depend on the functions of genes. Genes also contribute to a person’s behaviour and health, including susceptibility to certain diseases, such as heart disease. The course examines: the patterns of inheritance of genes, including those associated with genetic diseases; the sequence and content of the human genome; how genes function; how the physical and biochemical characteristics of the body are produced; and why there are differences between individuals and between populations. Finally, it explores some of the issues surrounding research into genes, from biological, medical and ethical points of view: for example, how knowledge of our genes has the potential to revolutionise our ability to change the genetic fates of individuals. The course will equip you with sufficient background to understand these issues and to engage with discussions presented in newspapers and popular scientific journals. As well as some of the biology of genes, you will learn biology that you can apply to other situations. You will also engage with key issues of concern to health professionals.

If you are a beginner in biology, you will find that the course introduces new ideas, concepts and scientific and study skills as they are needed, and you will progressively develop these skills and your understanding through structured questions and activities. If you have already done some biology at school, college or elsewhere, you will find that the course extends your knowledge about our genes and the biological, medical and ethical issues behind research on genes.

By the end of this course you should be able to:

Demonstrate general knowledge and understanding of some of the basic facts, concepts and principles relating to human genetics, including the relevant health issues and human biology. In particular:

  • the patterns of inheritance of genes and characters
  • how the interactions between genes and environment affect characters
  • the structure and function of genes: DNA to RNA to protein
  • the relationships between gene structure, gene function and characters
  • the process of genetic change, and the factors that cause cancer
  • the sequence and content of the human genome
  • the factors that influence the distribution of gene variants around the world
  • the medical, social and ethical issues arising from knowledge of our genes.

The course features the distinctive strengths of The Open University (OU) from its years of expertise in distance learning:

  • The convenience of accessing its clearly presented and sequenced materials, activities and support whenever suits you and wherever you have access to the protected course website – if you prefer, you can print key materials to work on them offline.
  • The support of an expert learning adviser who can clarify study materials, answer questions and help you relate the course to your specific needs.
  • An online interactive quiz that you can attempt as many times as you wish to help you test your own learning.
  • A statement of participation from the OU which you can use to demonstrate your engagement with the course. (N.B. The course does not carry academic credit points.)

Some of the pages within the course contain links to external sites. Accessing these sites is part of the allocated study time for the course. You may also wish to undertake additional background study or reading if some of the concepts introduced are completely unfamiliar to you.

Learner support

Expert, confidential learner support is available when you need it from a learning adviser, who will respond to you directly. Other support is available via the course forum, dedicated website and computing helpdesk.

If you have a disability

The course is delivered online and makes use of a variety of online resources. If you use specialist hardware or software to assist you in using a computer or the internet you are advised to contact us about support which can be given to meet your needs.

Course length

This course will require around 100 hours to complete.

Teaching and assessment


There is no formal assessment on the course but you will be able to assess yourself on your factual knowledge through an online quiz that gives detailed feedback to help your learning.

Future availability

This page describes the course that opened in February 2021. You can register and start this course at any time up until 31 January 2022, and study at your own pace. Future availability of this course is confirmed each year.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the academic regulations, which are available on our Student Policies and Regulations website.

    Entry requirements

    You need little more than an interest in biology (and genetics in particular) and debates in health and the motivation to discover more about these topics.

    You should be able to read and understand written English of a style and complexity characteristic of a professional magazine or quality newspaper. Mathematically you need only to be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide simple numbers. The structured teaching introduces simple fractions, ratios, percentages and probability.

    You can study at your own pace and attempt the online quiz at any time before the end date for the course. Information about the end date is available when you register and will be at least six months after registration.

    If you want to see if this material is suitable for you, try a sample of the study material.

    Course length

    This course will require around 100 hours to complete.


    Start End England fee Register
    At anytime Flexible - see Entry requirements for more detail £170.00 Register

    Ways to pay

    Credit/Debit Card – We accept American Express, Mastercard, Visa and Visa Electron.

    Sponsorship – If this course is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could ask your employer to sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. Your sponsor just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.

    The fee information provided here is valid for short courses starting in the 2021/22 academic year. Fees for short courses starting in the 2022/23 academic year or later may increase in line with the University’s strategic approach to fees.

    What's included

    All learning materials, activities and study support are delivered entirely online.

    You will need

    Basic scientific calculator.

    Computing requirements

    You'll need a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of 64-bit Windows 10 (note that Windows 7 is no longer supported) or macOS and broadband internet access.

    To join in spoken conversations in tutorials we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

    Our module websites comply with web standards and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

    Our OU Study mobile App will operate on all current, supported, versions of Android and iOS. It's not available on Kindle.

    It's also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook, however, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you'll also require a desktop or laptop as described above.