Written & illustrated by: Mallika Venkatramani
Edited by: Chloe Rybicki-Kler, Sheila Marte, Madison Fitzgerald, and Jennifer Baker
“Why don’t you use your genetics knowledge and do something crazy with our plants?”
A friend asked me this question while volunteering at a community garden a few months ago. When they found out I study genetics, they immediately got inquisitive. Did they think my genetics background meant I could create some sort of plant monster? Coolly, I replied that plant genetics is not my area of expertise.
This wasn’t the first time I received a wild response when someone learned about my genetics background. The public perception of genetics is often intertwined with science fiction, a genre that tends to portray extreme and unrealistic scenarios – cue Jurassic Park. In reality, genetics shapes our daily lives in profound ways. Need some convincing? Let’s first delve into what genetics is.
Genetics is the study of the inheritance of characteristics from parents to offspring. The DNA in each of our cells acts as an instruction manual that directs every function in our body. Genes are pieces of DNA that control specific traits, such as the ability to roll our tongue or the rate at which our cells multiply. Genes don’t just control our bodily functions; they also shape much of the world around us – many crops are the products of thousands of years of plant hybridization, our lovable pet dogs were bred for companionship from an ancestral wolf species, and even insulin, a drug that has saved millions of lives around the world, was created through a clever technique based on genetic technologies. To me, this is just as fascinating as the sci-fi movies that glamorize the potential of genetics.
I’m going to introduce you to a hypothetical person called Wolverine Blue. Let’s assume that Wolverine Blue is a hardworking student at the University of Michigan. We will vicariously live a day in his life.
Wolverine Blue wakes up early to attend his 8 a.m. lecture. He is a little drowsy – he got less than 8 hours of sleep last night. He recalls an article he read about how some people can naturally get by on 6 hours of sleep because their DNA carries a specific variant in a sleep gene called ADRB1. Going back to our example of DNA being an instruction manual, you can think of a genetic variant as a section of this manual that has been replaced with a new set of instructions. The ADRB1 gene produces a substance called a β-1 adrenergic receptor. These receptors are present in all cells of our bodies and can respond to sleep hormones, including a region in the brain that regulates our sleep-wake cycle. This variant of ADRB1 causes that sleep-wake cycle regulating region of the brain to be more active, promoting shorter sleep cycles. Sighing, Wolverine wonders why he couldn’t have been one of these individuals with this variant.
After his morning classes, Wolverine lounges on the quad before his next class. It’s a beautiful spring day. As he admires the beautiful blue skies, he begins to daydream and recalls a memory from his childhood. He has an amazing memory, remembering details others forget. He wonders, why do some of us have good memories while others don’t? Genetics has an answer – genes like ADRA2B could influence how well we remember instances from our past. ADRA2B controls the movement of a chemical called noradrenaline in our brain. An ADRA2B variant enhances responsivity and connectivity between brain regions and is associated with better memory.
Wolverine stretches out and enjoys the warmth of the sunlight. Most people love an afternoon in the sun, but sun exposure can be extremely dangerous for some people! Individuals with genetic conditions like xeroderma pigmentosum avoid the sun as they are 10,000 times more likely to get skin cancer than someone without the condition, like Wolverine Blue. People with xeroderma pigmentosum have mismatch repair genes that are bad at catching mistakes. When ultraviolet radiation from the sun damages the DNA, this damage is unable to be fixed by mismatch repair genes, which can result in cancer-causing mutations. People with this condition have to wear protective clothing to enjoy a sunny afternoon like Wolverine Blue.
Wolverine Blue proceeds to wash up before dinner. As he glances at his own face in the bathroom mirror, he does a double take…are those gray hairs??? His dad’s hair turned fully gray by the age of 50, but he didn’t expect to see gray hair this early. Alas, developing gray hair early isn’t entirely in Wolverine’s control. While stress and nutrient deficiencies can influence when someone “goes gray,” our genes also play a key role in this process. Variants in the IRF4 gene can affect melanin production and influence when we start developing gray hair. Melanin is a pigment that gives color to our hair, skin, and eyes. Such genetic variants can be passed down from generation to generation, resulting in early-graying scenarios like Wolverine Blue’s.
Bummed about this conspicuous biological reminder that he’s aging, Wolverine Blue tries to distract himself with his favorite movie. He gets comfortable on the couch and turns on Jurassic Park, immersing himself in this fictitious world where playing with ancient DNA creates terrifying beasts.
While we leave Wolverine Blue to his movie, let’s consider how Jurassic Park contrasts with Wolverine Blue’s day. From a scientific perspective, the recreation of dinosaurs from fossilized DNA is an event we’re unlikely to see in our lifetimes. More realistically, we can appreciate how Wolverine Blue’s experiences – feeling drowsy for not having received 8 hours of sleep, ability to recall events from the distant past, being able to lie in the sun without fear of cancer risks, his lactose intolerance and early graying – were shaped by his genes. This phenomenon applies to all of us too! Truly, genetics isn’t a topic reserved for our favorite sci-fi novels or movies. Rather, our genes influence our everyday lives more than we appreciate.
Mallika Venkatramani is a first-year student of the MS Program in Genetic Counseling at the Department of Human Genetics. She graduated from University College Dublin in 2021 with a BSc (First Class Honors) in Genetics. Prior to moving to the US for graduate school, she worked at National Cancer Centre Singapore as a Genetic Counseling Assistant. Mallika also runs a science communication page on Instagram called Spill The Genes which aims to demystify genetics in simple language. In her free time, she enjoys baking and cooking vegetarian dishes from around the world, going on hikes and playing the South Indian bamboo flute.