Making sense of peacocks and genes

This summer I have tried to gain a better understanding of both peacocks and genes. You may wonder what in the world they have to do with each other. Read on and find out.

Let’s start with the peacocks. They don’t really belong by the Finnish seaside. Yet one of our summer neighbours thought they would be nice to have, so she bought a few.

They proved more difficult to hold on to than anticipated. After a week they escaped. Now they are roaming free, s(h)itting on the terrace of our vacation rental every morning and evening at 7 sharp, like clockwork.

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Their owner made some half-hearted attempts to catch them, but they were not co-operative. It looks like they will be left to fend for themselves in the hope that time and fate will take care of them.

The Finnish winter is not designed for peacocks. This can’t end well. Officials will have to be alerted.

Like the peacocks, genes and genome editing entered my summer by chance.

I have always needed less sleep than most people. Then the media started harassing me with stories about how bad this is for me. I was told that there was no such thing as people who can live happily and healthily with less than 7-8 hours of sleep.

I’m not getting any younger, so I took their words to heart, and tried to sleep more. Which meant that I slept badly.

Then I saw a summary of a report published by the University of California. It seems that a mutation in a gene called DEC2 explains why some people are born to need less sleep than others. Imagine my relief. I decided to adopt this gene mutation theory as my own, and went happily back to my old sleeping habits; reading late and waking early.

Sadly I  stumbled on another article on the matter. It specified that this “sleep less” gene had been found in non-Finnish Europeans. No mention was made of Finns. For a moment it seemed that I would have to go back to my unsuccessful efforts to sleep longer.

Then it struck me. What exactly did they mean by non-Finnish Europeans? A representative of the University of Eastern Finland was able to explain: In comparison to other Europeans (and everyone else), Finns are so distinctive in terms of their genotype that they should be classified as a population group of their own.

This was concluded in a study that analysed 60,000 individuals in Africa, Europe, North and South America, and East and South Asia in an attempt to identify mutational recurrences in different ethnic groups.

By now I was frustrated enough to keep digging. I wanted that “sleep less” gene. Nothing would deter me.

Guess what, there is still hope for me. The genes that make Finns so unique are found predominantly in Eastern Finland. Although the research data came from throughout Finland, the result was strongly influenced by Eastern Finland.

I’m from Western Finland. My roots are by the seaside, somewhere between Helsinki (ranking 9th worldwide in EIU’s latest Global Liveability Report, by the way) and our southernmost city, Hanko (very livable too, as you can see below).

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It appears that my genotype differs from that of my countrymen in Eastern Finland more than the genotypes of the Brits differ from those of the Germans. While I am Finnish, I could still be categorised as European genetically.

I’m happily back to my old sleeping habits. I could easily find out whether I truly have the “sleep less” gene, but I have learned my lesson. Sometimes it’s better to believe than to think you know.

Maybe I don’t have that specific gene, but I may have another that allows me to sleep this little without any repercussions. It just hasn’t been found yet. My days of tossing around in the bed futilely for hours are over.

While I was into this whole gene thing, I couldn’t help but take a peak at some of the other results.

As you know, different sequences within our DNA dictate different characteristics. Sometimes the design is flawed, which may result in serious diseases. Genome research paves the way for better understanding, treatment, and possibly cure of these genetically defined diseases. In theory we (or rather our offspring) can also be made taller, smaller, smarter…

Initially it sounds like something that would simply enhance our lives. Just as my neighbour thought her peacocks would. But it’s not a clear-cut “pick and choose whether  you want to be a sparrow or a peacock” situation.

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Remember the movie Dirty Dancing and its female lead Jennifer Grey? The actress that nobody recognised after her nose job. She went from instant fame to total forgettability just because she “edited” her nose to more resemble the “norm”. If cosmetic surgery can almost ruin a person’s career and life, what happens when genes are edited?

My DNA (which seems to be riddled with autoimmune diseases) is the root of me, even though my environment shapes me. Maybe a genetically better me would not have been a better me at all? Rheumatoid arthritis teaches both patience and humility; both are traits that could not be called my natural strengths at the outset.

As so often before, I have more questions than answers, but I do know that there are diseases that nobody is better off having.

Researchers recently used the gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 to correct a DNA flaw in embryos that causes hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a deadly familial heart condition. Good news in theory – whether in practice too remains to be seen.

The thing is, human conditions are complicated. It’s seldom a case of simply erasing or editing one gene, and living happily ever after.

Most of our genetically determined characteristics are thought to be the work of thousands of genetic variants, working in concert. While there are “core genes”, they don’t work in isolation. Tinkering with one or more genes may affect a whole network. It’s safe to say that genome editing still has a long way to go.

In the meantime in-vitro fertilisation may provide the solution for many (not all) who wish to spare their children from severe, genetically defined diseases. IVF embryos can be tested to determine whether they are affected by the relevant DNA flaw. Only the unaffected embryos will then be transferred; no genome editing needed.

As for fully edited designer babies; the world just isn’t ready for them – any more than the Finnish seaside is ready for peacocks. Too many things can go wrong with both.

Sadly things can go wrong whatever you do. My summer musings seem trivial in view of the terrorist attacks that just took place in Finland and Spain.

But I refuse to give the terrorists the attention they crave. So peacocks and genes it is.