By Pam Linn


Genes for jocks or science

A roundtable discussion of scientists led by Charlie Rose last week involving a neurologist, a psychologist and a Nobel Laureate probed some practical results of sequencing the human genome, identifying gene mutations in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, autism and clinical depression.

Most pharmaceuticals that benefit such patients were discovered for an entirely different purpose, they noted. What they call the Lipitor effect. The cholesterol-lowering drug, for instance, apparently cheers up depressed patients while unclogging their arteries.

It got me wondering what gene produces scientists and compels them to persist in research, sometimes in the face of strong political opposition, never knowing if the result will produce anything of merit. Famed physicist Richard P. Feynman called it, “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.”

Through DNA analysis (presumably of fossilized remains), scientists have discovered the pace of human evolution has been increasing at a stunning rate. Genetic changes account for 7 percent of the human genome, according to a study published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Anthropologist John Hawks, who led the study, admits that the advantages of all but about 100 of the genes remains a mystery.

Before the domestication of cattle and goats in Europe, and yaks and mares in Asia, children became lactose intolerant as they grew up. But a gene mutation allowing adults to digest milk provided a significant nutritional advantage.

Genetic resistance to diseases developed in a similar way, only in people living where those specific diseases are endemic. Natural selection occurred as populations expanded into new environments. Hawks agrees that there are many mysteries about evolving genes related to brain development. And though nobody 10,000 years ago had blue eyes, blue-eyed people later proved to have a 5 percent advantage in reproducing compared to brown. Hawks may have no clue, but I’ll bet Paul Newman does.

It’s possible that large segments of the American population resist the idea of gene mutations and evolution in general, for that matter, because it appears to contradict religious beliefs. Hence the legal wrangling in Dover, Pa., and Cobb County, Ga., where cautionary stickers placed over strategic lines in science textbooks were contested. Advocates of creation science (an oxymoron to the rest of us) and intelligent design wanted to warn that evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things.

“This material should be approached with an open mind studied carefully and critically considered,” as Steve Mirsky points out in his new book “Anti Gravity,” a collection of essays written for Scientific American. “Maybe that last sentence should be stamped into every textbook.”

I agree the advisory would be more accurate if it read, “Variation coupled with natural selection is the most widely accepted theory that explains evolution. Evidence for evolution itself is so overwhelming that those who deny its reality can do so only through nonscientific arguments.”

The satirical Mirsky goes on to propose stickers to be placed in numerous other textbooks, such as a sticker in Modern Optics: “CAUTION Dark Ages in mirror may be closer than they appear.”

In an essay titled “Hoop Genes” Mirsky posits, “Although the Human Genome Project will probably fail to uncover a DNA sequence governing three-point shooting, British researchers have indeed found a jock gene.”

This gene, which comes in two forms called I and D (for insertion and deletion), is for an angiogenesis-converting enzyme (ACE) a key player in modulating salt and water balance, blood vessel dilation and maybe more. People carrying the D form are normal but will probably be at home watching television reports of people who have the I form planting flags on the top of Mount Everest. “The study began by looking at athletes purely because their hearts grow when they exercise,” the lead author of the ACE, study said.

So genes for robust physical traits help make for a good athlete. But the basis for their behavior, both on and off the court, remains a mystery. The gene, if there is one, for competitiveness, the will to win, may yet be discovered.

In their unrelenting quest for understanding the selection of genes in evolution, will researchers find a gene that selects for a career in science? Will it be similar to one that selects for athletes? The will to pursue science in the face of government disincentives and general disregard for the value of empirical evidence?

Or in the course of selecting a new president, perhaps we should have the candidates debate on science. Would we vote for someone who vows to uphold religious beliefs and principles in favor of one who can make policy decisions based on scientific facts?

Remember, we are living with the result of decisions made by one with a rigid mindset that excludes all possibilities beyond the scope of his beliefs.

In that vast talent pool of candidates from both parties, will one emerge who combines the ability to reason, to access and apply scientific findings to policy decisions? And if he or she also had the gene for leadership, would we have the sense to vote for that person?