Genes, iron, the plague and me.


Picture of a DNA double helix.Science is awesome. You know that, right? If you’ve been reading here for more than five minutes, you’re probably aware that I spend an awful lot of time being gobsmacked at all the incredibly fascinating and awesome things that people find out, and the depth and richness this gives to our understanding of the world around us.

Also, if you’ve been reading for more than five minutes, you may be aware that I’m of the social sciencey persuasion myself. So one of the things that really gets my niftyawesomenessradar tingling is stuff that relates to us. People. Society. How we tick and who we are. Where we come from, what we do, why we do it.

Which is why I’m fascinated by a genetic disorder that seems to be cropping up in my family. A few of my close relatives were diagnosed with haemochromatosis in the past year or so, and the rest of us have all been sent off to our various doctors for testing. It’s a bit of an annoyance, but no big deal- it’s ridiculously common, easily treated, and if you catch it early enough will do you pretty much no damage.

Then I heard that it’s incredibly common here in Ireland. And I, of course, wondered why. It turns out that haemochromatosis is associated with increased plague resistance. Yep, the bubonic one.

And there’s the thing. I don’t know about you, but I tend to see any historical period before my grandparents’ time as impossibly distant. While I’m aware that i had ancestors then, I have little to no reference for them. The people who were around then just don’t seem connected to me- our lives are so different, our experiences and the cultures that we live in so far apart.

But then I find out that the people I am closely related to (and possibly me) have genetic markers conferring greater than average resistance to the bubonic plague in every cell of our bodies. And suddenly I’m there, suddenly there’s the empathy and there’s the connection. My ancestors survived the plague. They got the plague. They got sick. They were scared and felt godawful and they thought that they were going to die. Were the people around them scared of them? Were they shunned in their illness? How long did they see the people around them getting sick and dying? Did they wonder why they had been spared?

Suddenly they become human. They become real people. Suddenly I can see them as like my current family- knowing which ones of us would be that essential little bit more likely to survive, and which to die. Suddenly it’s so clear how you and me and everyone are directly tied to these people, those unbroken lines of inheritance telling us so much about the lives that they have lived. Writing our weaknesses and strengths on our bodies.

Frickin’ awesome, I tell ya.

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6 thoughts on “Genes, iron, the plague and me.

  1. Finding something you can relate to that connects you to your ancestors is kind of fun aint it? For me the eureka moment was finding out where I got the shape and cant of my eyes from. It makes the deep past stop being somethindead and brings it back to life in a very profound way.

    Loves History!

  2. Another good place to start is the 1901 and 1911 censuses, both of which are online. Suddenly these people of my grandparents’ generation become real. I didn’t think it was going to be a profound experience looking them up, but it was.

    I was in a discussion recently about the 1347 plague and I was told it was not a big thing in Ireland. I don’t believe this, frankly. We are very limited in the number of surviving records and, when you think about it, the 14th and 15th centuries are almost completely absent from Irish History. Pollen analysis indicates that most of Ireland became quite wild and overgrown during this time, so it’s fair to say that the Black Death took quite a toll on the Irish population.

  3. That’s so cool. Science – so often accused of being cold and sterile – led you to connect, albeit in a tenuous way with ancestors long past.

  4. It’s amazing isn’t it? In Ireland it’s haemochromatosis that conferred us with a survival advantage. In areas with endemic malaria, sickle-cell disease is thought to have given carriers an advantage over that disease.

    I was talking to another medic recently about coeliac disease and why it’s so common in Ireland. There are loads of theories out there, but he mentioned one that I found particularly interesting. My understanding of the basic idea is- One of the origins of agriculture was the so called Fertile Crescent in the Middle-East. Agriculture spread across Europe. People with coeliac disease started eating all these fancy grains that were now readily available. They got malnourished and died too young to procreate. Agriculture reached Ireland too obviously but we were still very much into our potatoes. People with coeliac disease therefore didn’t get too malnourished and generally were able to hang around long enough to procreate. In post-famine times we have obviously been eating a lot more of the gluten-containing grains. However, infectious disease rates have been declining, healthcare is better, we have enjoyed increased access to clean water and sanitation. So, even before we knew how to treat coeliac disease, it had stopped killing people. It would make them pretty sick, but other diseases became less likely to come along and kill the weakened.

    That, so the theory goes is why we have such a high rate of coeliac disease in ireland. I don’t think anyone has figured out to what extent it is true, but it’s a good story.

    • But, didn’t we only start eating potatoes in the 17th century? Potatoes are a New World crop, unknown to Europeans until the discovery of America.

      • You know, I’ve been thinking about that very thing, since I got in a conversation about this with some coeliac types. Time to do some research on what people were eating before potatoes, methinks 🙂

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