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.