13 Facts About Genes

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

10 Facts About Your Tonsils

iStock/Neustockimages
iStock/Neustockimages

Most of us only become aware of our tonsils if they become swollen or infected. But these masses of lymphatic tissue in the mouth and throat are important immunological gatekeepers at the start of the airways and digestive tract, grabbing pathogens and warding off diseases before they reach the rest of your body. Here are some essential answers about these often-overlooked tissues—like what to do when your tonsils are swollen, and whether you should get your tonsils removed.

1. People actually have four kinds of tonsils.

The term tonsils usually refers to your palatine tonsils, the ones that can be seen at the back of your throat. But tonsillar tissue also includes the lingual tonsil (located in the base of the tongue), tubal tonsils, and the adenoid tonsil (often just called adenoids). "Collectively, these are referred to as Waldeyer's ring," says Raja Seethala, the director of head and neck pathology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a member of the College of American Pathologists Cancer Committee.

2. Tonsils are one of the body's first responders to pathogens.

The tonsils are a key barrier to inhaled or ingested pathogens that can cause infection or other harm, Seethala tells Mental Floss. "These pathogens bind to specialized immune cells in the lining—epithelium—to elicit an immune response in the lymphoid T and B cells of the tonsil," he says. Essentially, they help jumpstart your immune response.

3. Adenoid tonsils can obstruct breathing and cause facial deformities.

If the adenoid tonsils are swollen, they can block breathing and clog up your sinus drainage, which can cause sinus and ear infections. If adenoids are too big, it forces a person to breathe through their mouth. In children, frequent mouth breathing has the potential to cause facial deformities by stressing developing facial bones. "If the tonsils are too large and cause airway obstruction, snoring, or obstructive sleep apnea, then removal is important," says Donald Levine, an ear, nose, and throat specialist in Nyack, New York. Fortunately, the adenoids tend to get smaller naturally in adulthood.

4. As many of us know, sometimes tonsils are removed.

Even though your tonsils are part of your immune system, Levine tells Mental Floss, "when they become obstructive or chronically infected, then they need to be removed." The rest of your immune system steps in to handle further attacks by pathogens. Another reason to remove tonsils besides size, Levine says, is "chronic tonsillitis due to the failure of the immune system to remove residual bacteria from the tonsils, despite multiple antibiotic therapies."

5. Tonsillectomies have been performed for thousands of years ...

Tonsil removal is believed to have been a phenomenon for three millennia. The procedure is found in ancient Ayurvedic texts, says Seethala, "making it one of the older documented surgical procedures." But though the scientific understanding of the surgery has changed dramatically since then, "the benefits versus harm of tonsillectomy have been continually debated over the centuries," he says.

6. ... and they were probably quite painful.

The first known reported case of tonsillectomy surgery, according to a 2006 paper in Otorhinolaryngology, is by Cornélio Celsus, a Roman "encylopaediest" and dabbler in medicine, who authored a medical encyclopedia titled Of Medicine in the 1st century BCE. Thanks to his work, we can surmise that a tonsillectomy probably was an agonizing procedure for the patient: "Celsus applied a mixture of vinegar and milk in the surgical specimen to hemostasis [stanch bleeding] and also described his difficulty doing that due to lack of proper anesthesia."

7. Tonsil removal was performed for unlikely reasons.

The same paper reveals that among some of the more outlandish reasons for removing tonsils were conditions like "night enuresis (bed-wetting), convulsions, laryngeal stridor, hoarseness, chronic bronchitis, and asthma."

8. An early treatment for swollen tonsils included frog fat.

As early practitioners struggled to perfect techniques for removing tonsils effectively, another early physician, Aetius de Amida, recommended "ointment, oils, and corrosive formulas with frog fat to treat infections."

9. Modern tonsillectomy is much more sophisticated.

A common technique today for removing the tonsils, according to Levine, is a far cry from the painful early attempts. Under brief general anesthesia, Levine uses a process called coblation. "[It's] a kind of cold cautery, so there is almost no bleeding, less post operative pain, and quicker healing. You can return to normal activities 10 days later," Levine says.

10. Sexually-transmitted HPV can cause tonsil cancer.

The incidence of tonsillar cancers is increasing, according to Seethala. "Unlike other head and neck cancers, which are commonly associated with smoking and alcohol, tonsillar cancers are driven by high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV)," he says. "HPV-related tonsillar cancer can be considered sexually transmitted."

26 Amazing Facts About the Human Body

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube

At some point in your life, you've probably wondered: What is belly button lint, anyway? The answer, according to Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy, is that it's "fibers that rub off of clothing over time." And hairy people are more prone to getting it for a very specific (and kind of gross-sounding) reason. A group of scientists who formed the Belly Button Biodiversity Project in 2011 have also discovered that there's a whole lot of bacteria going on in there.

In this week's all-new edition of The List Show, Erin is sharing 26 amazing facts about the human body, from your philtrum (the dent under your nose) to your feet. You can watch the full episode below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here.

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