Of Yeast Genes and Tinker Toys

Biopolitical Times
Microscopic image of yeast cells

Why do harmful genes persist in a population? In a recently published paper, University of Michigan researchers demonstrated that depending on their environmental and biological context, "hundreds of genes" are either harmful or beneficial to an organism – in this case, yeast.

There's a term for this insight, which has been around since the 1950s: antagonistic pleiotropy.  It may not slide smoothly off the tongue. In fact, it may seem just some more scientific jargon. But it actually captures an important biological phenomenon that we ignore at great risk. The fact that the same gene harms or helps, depending on the situation, sounds a serious warning to those who want to tinker around.

Yes, many genes – no one knows how many – are what Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer called “a two-face, a worrisome thing [that]'ll leave ya to sing the blues in the night" if we don't attend to their duplicity.

And before anyone comments that humans are not single-celled organisms like yeast, and returns to tinker-toying with humans, note the researchers’ prediction that "humans should have even more antagonistic pleiotropy." This would mean, they say, that "treatment that removes a disease-causing genetic effect may lead to adverse effects in other aspects of life."

Back in 1995, Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Lindee published the first edition of "The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon."  It's taken a while for both scientists and non-scientists to get their heads around the notion – and implications – of epigenetics, and to acknowledge that "DNA is not our destiny." The ramifications of antagonistic pleiotropy may be no less relevant to sickness and health, and, importantly, to our understanding of genetics and society.

Abby Lippman has spent decades following developments in applied genetic and reproductive technologies. Her main interests as a feminist researcher, writer and activist center on women's health and the politics of health. She is also Professor Emerita in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health at McGill University.