The Lethal Gene from Ancient Palestine

A long line of discoveries shows the history and biology of the world’s most studied piece of DNA, a mutation that causes breast cancer.

  1. Shonnie Medina was a happy girl who felt she would die young.

    Her physical beauty, when she was a young woman in Culebra and a young wife in Alamosa, was the primary thing that people mentioned about her. Photographs and snatches of videotape don’t quite capture it because fundamentally what people were talking about was charisma. It came through her looks when she was in front of you, tossing her full head of dark hair and giving you her full attention. Then her beauty acted like a mooring for her other outward qualities, undulating from that holdfast like fronds of kelp on the sea. Then Shonnie was magnetic, vain, kind to others, religious without reservation, funny, a little goofy, and headstrong.

    Being headstrong or unreasonable was the quality that the doctors in Alamosa and Denver blamed for her death—for Shonnie was right about dying young. She carried in her cells a dangerous genetic mutation and died when she was 28, after refusing surgery for her aggressive, inherited b...

The complete text of “The Lethal Gene from Ancient Palestine” is not in the Byliner library, but we love it so much we included an excerpt and a link to the full story on

Originally published in Discover, December 2011

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