13 Facts About Genes

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iStock.com/IPGGutenbergUKLtd, stock_colors, RapidEye, b-d-s

In 2003, after 13 years of study, international researchers working on the groundbreaking Human Genome Project published their findings. For the very first time, the genetic building blocks that make up humans were mapped out, allowing researchers “to begin to understand the blueprint for building a person,” according to the project's website. Humans are now known to have between 20,000 and 25,000 genes, but researchers still have much to learn about these small segments of DNA. Below, we’ve listed a few facts about gene expression, genetic diseases, and the ways genes make us who we are.

1. The word gene wasn’t coined until the 20th century.

Although “father of genetics” Gregor Mendel conducted his pea plant experiments in the mid-1800s, it wasn’t until 1909 that Danish botanist Wilhelm Johannsen became the first person to describe Mendel's individual units of heredity. He called them genes—derived from pangenesis, the word Charles Darwin used for his now-disproven theory of heredity (among other ideas, Darwin suggested that acquired characteristics could be inherited).

2. On a genetic level, all humans are more than 99 percent identical.

Humans have a lot more in common than we might be inclined to believe. In fact, more than 99 percent of our genes are exactly the same from one person to the next. In other words, the diversity we see within the human population—including traits like eye color, height, and blood type—is due to genetic differences that account for less than 1 percent. More specifically, variations of the same gene, called alleles, are responsible for these differences.

3. Genes can disappear or break as species evolve.

Thanks to a combination of genes, most mammals are able to biologically produce their own Vitamin C in-house, so to speak. But some point throughout the course of human history, we lost the ability to make Vitamin C when one of those genes stopped functioning in humans long ago. “You can see it in our genome. We are missing half the gene,” Dr. Michael Jensen-Seaman, a genetics researcher and associate professor of biological sciences at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, tells Mental Floss. “Generally speaking, when a species loses a gene during evolution, it’s usually because they don’t need it—and if you don’t use it, you lose it. All our ancestors probably ate so much fruit that there was never any need to make your own Vitamin C.” Jensen-Seaman says humans also lost hundreds of odorant receptors (proteins produced by genes that detect specific smells) because we rely mostly on vision. This explains why our sense of smell is worse than many other species.

4. Elizabeth Taylor’s voluminous eyelashes were likely caused by a genetic mutation.

A mutation of the aptly named FOXC2 gene gave Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor two rows of eyelashes. The technical term for this rare disorder is distichiasis, and while it may seem like a desirable problem to have, there can be complications. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, this extra set of lashes is sometimes “fine and well tolerated,” but in other cases they should be removed to prevent eye damage.

5. Genes involved in sperm are some of the most rapidly evolving genes in the animal kingdom.

Throughout much of the natural world, a class of genes called sperm competition genes are becoming better and better at fertilizing eggs. This is true for various species, including some primates and marine invertebrates. Consider promiscuous primates, like chimpanzees, whose females mate with multiple males in a short period of time. As a result, the males are competing at the genetic level—via their sperm—to father offspring. “What’s happening, we think, is there’s sort of an arms race among genes that are involved in either sperm production or any aspect of male reproduction,” Jensen-Seaman says. Essentially, the proteins in these genes are changing to help males rise to the occasion.

6. A “zombie gene” in elephants might help protect them from cancer.

In a 2018 study published in Cell Reports, researchers from the University of Chicago found that a copy of a cancer-suppressing gene that was previously “dead” (or non-functioning) in elephants turned back on at some point. They don’t know why or how it happened, but this reanimated “zombie gene” might explain why elephants have such low rates of cancer—just 5 percent die from the disease, compared to 11 to 25 percent of humans. Some have suggested that a drug could theoretically be created to mimic the function of this gene in order to treat cancer in humans.

7. Octopuses can edit their own genes.

Cephalopods like squids, cuttlefish, and octopuses are incredibly intelligent and wily creatures—so much so that they can rewrite the genetic information in their neurons. Instead of one gene coding for one protein, which is normally the case, a process called recoding lets one octopus gene produce multiple proteins. Scientists discovered that this process helps some Antarctic species “keep their nerves firing in frigid waters,” The Washington Post notes.

8. The premise of the 1986 film The Fly isn’t completely absurd.

After a botched experiment in The Fly, Jeff Goldblum morphs into a fly-like creature. Surprisingly, that premise might, uh, fly—at least on some genetic level. Although different researchers come up with different estimates, humans share about 52 percent of the same genes with fruit flies, and scientists figure that the number is roughly the same for house flies.

So, could Jeff Goldblum theoretically turn into a human-fly hybrid if his genes got mixed up with the insect's in a futuristic teleportation device? Not exactly, but there are some scientific parallels. “With genetic engineering, we can select genes and insert them into other organisms’ genomes,” DNA researcher Erica Zahnle tells the Chicago Tribune. “We do it all the time. Right now there’s a hybrid of a tomato that has a fish gene in it.”

9. Our genes might prevent us from living more than 125 years.

Despite advances in medicine, there might be a biological cap on how long humans can stick around. Several studies have suggested that we’ve already peaked, with the maximum extent for human life falling between 115 and 125 years. According to this theory, cells can only replicate so many times, and they often become damaged with age. Even if we’re able to modify our genes via gene therapy, we probably can’t modify them fast enough to make much of a difference, Judith Campisi from the Buck Institute for Research on Aging tells The Atlantic.

“For such reasons, it is meaningless to claim that most human will live for 200–500 years in the near future, thanks to medical or scientific progress, or that ‘within 15 years, we'll be adding more than a year every year to our remaining life expectancy,’” the authors of a 2017 study write in Frontiers in Physiology, citing previous studies from 2003 and 2010, respectively. “Raising false hopes without taking into account that human beings are already extremely ‘optimized’ for lifespan seems inappropriate.”

10. The idea that a single gene determines whether you have attached or unattached earlobes is a myth.

Forget what you may have learned about earlobes and genetics in middle school. While your genes probably play some role in determining whether you have attached earlobes (a supposedly dominant trait) or unattached earlobes, the idea that this trait is controlled by a single gene is simply untrue. On top of that, earlobes don’t even fall into two distinct categories. There’s also a third, which University of Delaware associate professor John H. McDonald calls intermediate earlobes. "It doesn't look to me as if there are just two categories; instead, there is continuous variation in the height of the attachment point," McDonald writes on his website. A better example of a trait controlled by a single gene is blood type. Whether you have an A, B, or O blood type is determined by three variations—or alleles—of one gene, according to Jensen-Seaman.

11. No, there isn’t a "wanderlust gene" or "music gene."

Every now and then, new studies will come out that seem to suggest a genetic source for various personality traits, preferences, or talents. In 2015, there was talk of a “wanderlust gene” that inspires certain people to travel, and several other reports have suggested musical aptitude is also inherited. However, like many things in science, the reality isn’t so simple. “Part of the problem is that when we’re in school, we learn examples of traits that are controlled by a single gene, like Mendel’s peas, and we start to think that all variation is determined by a single gene,” Jensen-Seaman says. “But other than a variety of rare genetic diseases, most of the interesting things in medicine, or in human behavior or human variation, are what we call complex traits.” These complex traits typically involve hundreds—if not thousands—of genes, as well as the environmental factors you’re exposed to throughout your life.

12. DNA testing kits can’t tell how smart you are.

Much like your talents and personality, intelligence is also a complex trait that's difficult to measure because it’s influenced by many different genes. One 2017 study identified 52 genes associated with higher or lower intelligence, but the predictive power of those genes—or ability to tell how smart you are—is less than 5 percent. Another study from 2018 identified 538 genes associated with intelligence, which have a 7 percent predictive power. Put simply, no DNA testing kit can accurately predict whether you're a genius or dunce, even if the company claims it can. And, even if scientists make improvements in this field of study, DNA tests can't account for the environmental factors that also influence intelligence.

13. Your genetic makeup determines whether you think your pee smells funky after eating asparagus.

Do you recoil from the scent of your urine after eating asparagus? If so, you’re among the nearly 40 percent of people who are able to detect the smell of metabolized asparagus in pee, according to a study of nearly 7000 people of European-American descent that was published in The BMJ's 2016 Christmas issue. (The BMJ has an annual tradition of publishing strange and light-hearted studies around this time of year, and the asparagus pee study is no exception.) Again, there isn’t one gene in particular to pin the blame on, though. Multiple olfactory receptor genes—and 871 sequence variations on said genes—are involved in determining whether you have a talent for sniffing out asparagus pee.

12 Fantastic Facts About the Immune System

monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images
monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images

If it weren't for our immune system, none of us would live very long. Not only does the immune system protect us from external pathogens like viruses, bacteria, and parasites, but it also battles cells that have mutated due to illnesses, like cancer, within the body. Here are 12 fascinating facts about the immune system.

1. The immune system saves lives.

The immune system is a complex network of tissues and organs that spreads throughout the entire body. In a nutshell, it works like this: A series of "sensors" within the system detects an intruding pathogen, like bacteria or a virus. Then the sensors signal other parts of the system to kill the pathogen and eliminate the infection.

"The immune system is being bombarded by all sorts of microbes all the time," Russell Vance, professor of immunology at University of California, Berkeley and an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, tells Mental Floss. "Yet, even though we're not aware of it, it's saving our lives every day, and doing a remarkably good job of it."

2. Before scientists understood the immune system, illness was chalked up to unbalanced humors.

Long before physicians realized how invisible pathogens interacted with the body's system for fighting them off, doctors diagnosed all ills of the body and the mind according to the balance of "four humors": melancholic, phlegmatic, choleric, or sanguine. These criteria, devised by the Greek philosopher Hippocrates, were divided between the four elements, which were linked to bodily fluids (a.k.a. humors): earth (black bile), air (blood), water (phlegm) and fire (yellow bile), which also carried properties of cold, hot, moist, or dry. Through a combination of guesswork and observation, physicians would diagnose patients' humors and prescribe treatment that most likely did little to support the immune system's ability to resist infection.

3. Two men who unraveled the immune system's functions were bitter rivals.

Two scientists who discovered key functions of the immune system, Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, should have been able to see their work as complementary, but they wound up rivals. Pasteur, a French microbiologist, was famous for his experiments demonstrating the mechanism of vaccines using weakened versions of the microbes. Koch, a German physician, established four essential conditions under which pathogenic bacteria can infect hosts, and used them to identify the Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacterium that causes tuberculosis. Though both helped establish the germ theory of disease—one of the foundations of modern medicine today—Pasteur and Koch's feud may have been aggravated by nationalism, a language barrier, criticisms of each other's work, and possibly a hint of jealousy.

4. Specialized blood cells are the immune system's greatest weapon.

The most powerful weapons in your immune system's arsenal are white blood cells, divided into two main types: lymphocytes, which create antigens for specific pathogens and kill them or escort them out of the body; and phagocytes, which ingest harmful bacteria. White blood cells not only attack foreign pathogens, but recognize these interlopers the next time they meet them and respond more quickly. Many of these immune cells are produced in your bone marrow but also in the spleen, lymph nodes, and thymus, and are stored in some of these tissues and other areas of the body. In the lymph nodes, which are located throughout your body but most noticeably in your armpits, throat, and groin, lymphatic fluid containing white blood cells flows through vein-like tubules to escort foreign invaders out.

5. The spleen helps your immune system work.

Though you can live without the spleen, an organ that lies between stomach and diaphragm, it's better to hang onto it for your immune function. According to Adriana Medina, a doctor who specializes in hematology and oncology at the Alvin and Lois Lapidus Cancer Institute at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, your spleen is "one big lymph node" that makes new white blood cells and cleans out old blood cells from the body.

It's also a place where immune cells congregate. "Because the immune cells are spread out through the body," Vance says, "eventually they need to communicate with each other." They do so in both the spleen and lymph nodes.

6. You have immune cells in all of your tissues.

While immune cells may congregate more in lymph nodes than elsewhere, "every tissue in your body has immune cells stationed in it or circulating through it, constantly roving for signs of attack," Vance explains. These cells also circulate through the blood. The reason for their widespread presence is that there are thousands of different pathogens that might infect us, from bacteria to viruses to parasites. "To eliminate each of those different kinds of threats requires specialized detectors," he says.

7. How friendly you're feeling could be linked to your immune system.

From an evolutionary perspective, humans' high sociability may have less to do with our bigger brains, and more to do with our immune system's exposure to a greater number of bacteria and other pathogens.

Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have theorized that interferon gamma (IG), a substance that helps the immune system fight invaders, was linked to social behavior, which is one of the ways we become exposed to pathogens.

In mice, they found IG acted as a kind of brake to the brain's prefrontal cortex, essentially stopping aberrant hyperactivity that can cause negative changes in social behavior. When they blocked the IG molecule, the mice's prefrontal cortexes became hyperactive, resulting in less sociability. When they restored the function, the mice's brains returned to normal, as did their social behavior.

8. Your immune system might recruit unlikely organs, like the appendix, into service.

The appendix gets a bad rap as a vestigial organ that does nothing but occasionally go septic and create a need for immediate surgery. But the appendix may help keep your gut in good shape. According to Gabrielle Belz, professor of molecular immunology at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, research by Duke University's Randal Bollinger and Bill Parker suggests the appendix houses symbiotic bacteria that are important for overall gut health—especially after infections wipe out the gut's good microbes. Special immune cells known as innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) in the appendix may help to repopulate the gut with healthy bacteria and put the gut back on track to recovery.

9. Gut bacteria has been shown to boost immune systems in mice.

Researchers at the University of Chicago noticed that one group of mice in their lab had a stronger response to a cancer treatment than other mice. They eventually traced the reason to a strain of bacteria—Bifidobacterium—in the mice's guts that boosted the animals' immune system to such a degree they could compare it to anti-cancer drugs called checkpoint inhibitors, which keep the immune system from overreacting.

To test their theory, they transferred fecal matter from the robust mice to the stomachs of less immune-strengthened mice, with positive results: The treated mice mounted stronger immune responses and tumor growth slowed. When they compared the bacterial transfer effects with the effects of a checkpoint inhibitor drug, they found that the bacteria treatment was just as effective. The researchers believe that, with further study, the same effect could be seen in human cancer patients.

10. Scientists are trying to harness the immune system's "Pac-Man" cells to treat cancer.

Aggressive pediatric tumors are difficult to treat due to the toxicity of chemotherapy, but some researchers are hoping to develop effective treatments without the harmful side effects. Stanford researchers designed a study around a recently discovered molecule known as CD47, a protein expressed on the surface of all cells, and how it interacts with macrophages, white blood cells that kill abnormal cells. "Think of the macrophages as the Pac-Man of the immune system," Samuel Cheshier, lead study author and assistant professor of neurosurgery at Stanford Medicine, tells Mental Floss.

CD47 sends the immune system's macrophages a "don't eat me" signal. Cancer cells fool the immune system into not destroying them by secreting high amounts of CD47. When Cheshier and his team blocked the CD47 signals on cancer cells, the macrophages could identify the cancer cells and eat them, without toxic side effects to healthy cells. The treatment successfully shrank all five of the common pediatric tumors, without the nasty side effects of chemotherapy.

11. A new therapy for type 1 diabetes tricks the immune system.

In those with type 1 diabetes, the body attacks its own pancreatic cells, interrupting its normal ability to produce insulin in response to glucose. In a 2016 paper, researchers at MIT, in collaboration with Boston's Children's Hospital, successfully designed a new material that allows them to encapsulate and transplant healthy pancreatic "islet" cells into diabetic mice without triggering an immune response. Made from seaweed, the substance is benign enough that the body doesn't react to it, and porous enough to allow the islet cells to be placed in the abdomen of mice, where they restore the pancreatic function. Senior author Daniel Anderson, an associate professor at MIT, said in a statement that this approach "has the potential to provide [human] diabetics with a new pancreas that is protected from the immune system, which would allow them to control their blood sugar without taking drugs. That's the dream."

12. Immunotherapy is on the cutting edge of immune system research.

Over the last few years, research in the field of immunology has focused on developing cancer treatments using immunotherapy. This method engineers the patient's own normal cells to attack the cancer cells. Vance says the technique could be used for many more conditions. "I feel like that could be just the tip of the iceberg," he says. "If we can understand better what the cancer and immunotherapy is showing, maybe we can go in there and manipulate the immune responses and get good outcomes for other diseases, too."

Why Do People Get Ice Cream Headaches?

CharlieAJA/iStock via Getty Images
CharlieAJA/iStock via Getty Images

Reader Susann writes in to ask, "What exactly is the cause of brain freeze?"

You may know an ice cream headache by one of its other names: brain freeze, a cold-stimulus headache, or sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia ("nerve pain of the sphenopalatine ganglion"). But no matter what you call it, it hurts like hell.

Brain freeze is brought on by the speedy consumption of cold beverages or food. According to Dr. Joseph Hulihan—a principal at Paradigm Neuroscience and former associate professor in the Department of Neurology at the Temple University Health Sciences Center, ice cream is a very common cause of head pain, with about one third of a randomly selected population succumbing to ice cream headaches.

What Causes That Pain?

As far back as the late 1960s, researchers pinned the blame on the same vascular mechanisms—rapid constriction and dilation of blood vessels—that were responsible for the aura and pulsatile pain phases of migraine headaches. When something cold like ice cream touches the roof of your mouth, there is a rapid cooling of the blood vessels there, causing them to constrict. When the blood vessels warm up again, they experience rebound dilation. The dilation is sensed by pain receptors and pain signals are sent to the brain via the trigeminal nerve. This nerve (also called the fifth cranial nerve, the fifth nerve, or just V) is responsible for sensation in the face, so when the pain signals are received, the brain often interprets them as coming from the forehead and we perceive a headache.

With brain freeze, we're perceiving pain in an area of the body that's at a distance from the site of the actual injury or reception of painful stimulus. This is a quirk of the body known as referred pain, and it's the reason people often feel pain in their neck, shoulders, and/or back instead of their chest during a heart attack.

To prevent brain freeze, try the following:

• Slow down. Eating or drinking cold food slowly allows one's mouth to get used to the temperature.

• Hold cold food or drink in the front part of your mouth and allow it to warm up before swallowing.

• Head north. Brain freeze requires a warm ambient temperature to occur, so it's almost impossible for it to happen if you're already cold.

This story has been updated for 2019.

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