Ancient Genes that Still Haunt US

There are a variety of afflictions from which we suffer that are remnants of ancient genes floating around in our DNA.  Migraine headaches, for example, were once genetically selected when the saber-tooth tiger was prowling around.  If you were an Australopith that had migraines, you would be hiding in a cave much of the time because light really bothered you, making your eyes tear and your head split.  All your brothers and sisters that did not have this affliction were out hunting small game and gathering roots and berries.  They became saber-tooth tiger food while you survived in your cave.  But you got the benefit of reproducing; however, your offspring also suffered from migraines, but nevertheless escaped the tiger. The migraine gene was preferentially selected. Now we don’t have the tiger to worry about anymore but have more humans with the migraine gene.

A large study done at Vanderbilt University of 28,000 people, in conjunction with records from Kaiser Permanente, studied people with depression. Interestingly the population who had a large percentage of Neanderthal genes in their genome was more likely also to have depression and had much more difficulty in quitting cigarette smoking. Homo Neanderthal is the closest extinct relative of Homo sapiens, us.  The first Neanderthal was found in the Neander Valley, a small town near Düsseldorf, Germany.  No Neanderthal has been seen for 25,000 years since our last ice age.  Why they disappeared remains a mystery.  Did H. sapiens outbreed them; were they unable to tailor warm fur clothing, or did we just absorb them?  The latter has some merit as much of 4% of Neanderthal DNA can be found in our DNA, suggesting there was more than casual contact.  The Neander Valley is known for its Octoberfest beer, and I suspect that had much to do with the higher genetic content of their DNA in us.  Too much beer interferes with good judgment and as they say, “shit happens!”

Neanderthal had a whole host of other questionable traits that would have made any H. sapiens’ (meaning wise) mother warn their sons to stay away from the Neanderthal ladies.  For example, they were prone, not only to depression, but to eating disorders resulting in malnutrition.

Furthermore, the Vanderbilt study found other undesirable traits such as skin cancer was more common amongst them, as well as an increased risk for blood to clot, which would be useful in case of an injury but could also lead to a pulmonary embolism. They were prone to carry the known cancer-causing virus, Ebstein Bar.  Altogether, not great genetics! But Neanderthals were pretty spectacular artists.

Unfortunately, our genes are the most important factor in what we look like, what diseases we are prone to, what our body weight is likely to be, our eye and hair color, how long we will live, and pretty much everything else. Whatever environmental changes we have at our disposal, whatever medicines or surgical treatment we undergo cannot change the genes. Just choosing different parents would do it.  Of course, that would take a time machine or a wormhole in the fabric of space-time.  There is nevertheless some hope for the future.  GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) have been around for a few decades.  Regrettably, there is not much public support for it.  Stories of genetically modified foods bring up visions of horror shows with the modified genes taking over our bodies with new diseases, and furthermore, the wild genes creating mutations that are then passed on to our offspring. Movies showing fly heads implanted on human bodies and other monstrous assaults on our delicate biochemical structures have frightened us.  But that is mostly hype of people who read too much Sci-Fi and trust the environment and nature more than it deserves to be trusted.  GMO’s, on the contrary, have done a lot of good, from providing better yield in growing produce, to animals that are healthier, make more milk, and provide more meat.  The entire dog population is GMO created.  We would not do very well having a wolf sleeping with us at night.  But with just a few modified genes, we get cute, friendly, puppies that grow into the best friend man (or woman) can have.

T-cells are a special lymphocyte in the blood that are central in formulating the body’s immune defenses. It has become possible to snip out parts of a DNA sequence that is harmful or inactive in a T-cell and replace it with a beneficial sequence.  Diseases that were incurable are now nearer to a cure than ever with gene therapy.  Certain malignancies and Multiple Sclerosis can be controlled by harvesting your T-cells in the blood, getting a virus that has been pre-programmed to carry a beneficial DNA snippet that infects your T-cells, thus inserting the good DNA into them.  Now your T-cells are ready to take on the fight against whatever malady with which you are afflicted.  It sounds impossible, but it is here and now.

Buckminster Fuller, the architect, inventor, and futurist who discovered that the rate of new knowledge increases with ever-accelerating speed, and now our fund of knowledge doubles every 12 months. It took us 3 million years to get from the Rift Valley in Kenya to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and about another 69 years to reach the Sea of Tranquility on the moon.  We are starting a new decade; it will be astounding*!


*Line was stolen from Walt Adair, former Chief of Police of Santa Paula, CA.