Soviet Genetics, Mangoes, Your Momma, and Swedish Weight Gain

“The only difference between Señor Chang and Stalin is that I know who Señor Chang is.” – Community

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This duckbilled dinosaur could have been a kitten, if only it had been loved.

When I start a blog topic, most of the time I know where I’m going, and, generally where I’m going to end up.  Most of the time.  Sometimes I end up learning something completely unexpected that changes my conclusion.  Sometimes I learn that we, as humans, are only scratching the surface of how really, deeply weird the world around us is.  This post is deeply weird.  Hang, on, buckle up and enjoy my favorite health post ever . . . .

Trofim Lysenko was born in Ukraine in 1898.  Apparently the baby name books in Russia includes the name “Trofim” even though to me it sounds like a fitness product advertised on an infomercial at 3AM on The Discovery Channel® – get fit with new Trofim™!  Frankly, Lysenko sounds like a bathroom cleanser – so poor Trofim was destined for failure, right?

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Would you buy a used economic theory from this man? – photo of Lysenko, public domain, via Wikimedia

Trofim studied agriculture, and, apparently came up with a bunch of ideas about how plants could better grow around the time the Soviet Union was starting up.  His theories included the idea that cows that were treated well would give more milk, and that plants could cooperate somehow to make more wheat.

Joseph Stalin LOVED Lysenko.  His theories dovetailed exactly with Stalin’s Communism – the importance of genetics went to zero.  With proper nurture, you could create a True Soviet Man – people weren’t just created with equal rights – they were BORN equal.  If you could create the right conditions, everyone would BE equal, just like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and me.  Oh, wait, that’s observably false.  Brad Pitt could never get my SAT score, even if he studied.  Clooney?  Let’s see him go bald, huh?

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Unrecorded in the West is the fact that Stalin’s giant head was carried in local parades by men in white suits up until 2003, when it was retired to a farm outside of Minsk where it now lives with gently treated cows and monkeys. – photo of MegaStalin, Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R78376 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Lysenko singlehandedly destroyed genetic research in the Soviet Union for forty years, as well as being responsible for the jailing (and sometimes execution) of everyone who disagreed with him.  Certainly no one in the West would do that about people who dissent scientifically . . . right?  Anyway, Lysenko set the standards for political correctness in research, and yes, the Soviet Union is where the term Politically Correct came from – the idea that ideas themselves couldn’t be discussed unless their politics were in vogue at the moment.  And if you brought up politically incorrect ideas?  Gulag for you, comrade.

Mao Zedong proved that this point could be taken to extremes when the Pakistani ambassador gave him a case of mangoes.  Mao didn’t like mangoes.  So  . . .

In the afternoon of the fifth, when the great happy news of Chairman Mao giving mangoes to the Capital Worker and Peasant Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team reached the Tsinghua University campus, people immediately gathered around the gift given by the Great Leader Chairman Mao. They cried out enthusiastically and sang with wild abandonment. Tears swelled up in their eyes, and they again and again sincerely wished that our most beloved Great Leader lived then thousand years without bounds … They all made phone calls to their own work units to spread this happy news; and they also organized all kinds of celebratory activities all night long, and arrived at [the national leadership compound] Zhongnanhai despite the rain to report the good news, and to express their loyalty to the Great Leader Chairman Mao.

August 7, 1968 People’s Daily

Yes.  The Chinese people worshiped (for 18 months) mangoes so they didn’t disappoint Chairman Mao.  And it had lasting consequences for some.   A dentist was executed for saying the mango touring his village looked like a sweet potato.

Don’t believe me? A lot more about it here (LINK).

But, we were talking about Lysenko.

He killed genetic science because of the laughable idea that everything was nurture, not nature.  We do know that there are lots of things that are totally genetic:  intelligence, likelihood of being criminal, eye color, hair color, blood type, et cetera.  For example, you can stunt a smart person’s intelligence through poor nutrition.  But their overall capacity to be intelligent is about 70%-80% genetic.

So Trofim (snicker) Lysenko was entirely wrong?

No.

We’re learning a lot more about something called epigenetics now.  Epi in this case means “over” or “over-genetics.”  If you remember, DNA is a double helix molecule that stores all of the information about how to make a copy of you.  One gram of DNA can, according to folks at Harvard, store 700 terabytes of data, or about as much information as 14,000 Blu-Ray® discs of Geostorm© when it comes out.  Which will also be 13,720 more discs than Geostorm© sells.

DNA stores lots of information, but at a cost.  DNA is information dense, but it is looooooooooong.  Each cell has about 2 meters of DNA if you stretched it out.  Take all of the DNA in your body and lay it end to end?  (Do NOT try this at home, it’s kinda messy – if you’re going to do this, at least use the garage.)  There’s enough DNA, laid end to end, which would be roughly diameter of all of the planets in our Solar System.  That includes Pluto – we’re gonna take it back.

DNA is long.  And since our cells aren’t 2 meters long, something happens to the DNA in your cells.  Rather than tossing the DNA into the cell like The Boy and Pugsley throw extension cords onto the garage floor, the cell has little cord winders that wind up the DNA so it’s not all tangled up like Johnny Depp’s finances.  So, the DNA is tightly wound around the cord winders.  In my garage.  In your cell.

But it turns out that the cord winders themselves (I know this analogy is getting a bit stretched) are very much impacted by your behavior.  And, the scary part?  Potentially your mother’s behavior.  Scarier?  Even your grandmother, and we all know what a tramp she was.

I recall reading a story about a Native American tribe in Arizona that experienced famine that killed off a significant portion of the tribe.  The result?  A bunch of really, really fat Native Americans two generations later.  My theory had been that the people with the skinny genes had all died out, and that the remaining Native Americans had all had genes that were really, really efficient with calories.  And liked Twinkies®.  Makes sense?  Sure.

But then?  Epigenetics.  Turns out that this phenomenon was repeated in Sweden, where in some really northern town, named “Rejëllyfaarnøørthernplåcedüde” there was a periodic starvation, because they didn’t live where any food was, except seals.

All the kids from Rejëllyfaarnøørthernplåcedüde got fat.  Really fat.  Turns out the operative theory is that the environment that the mothers grew up in changed not the DNA but the cord winders and how the DNA was wound up.  Because of the changes to the cord winders (which are really enzymes) certain parts of the DNA were exposed that changed the way the cells work.  This is entirely necessary, because when you’re a baby, your eye cell needs to know that it’s an eye cell and not a lung cell, otherwise you could see your guts and have to remove your glasses to breathe, which would make dating . . . complicated.

The end result of this epigenetic change was it made the kids more likely to burn off energy slowly – which is a great adaptation if you’re starving.

But it looks like there are a whole host of other adaptations that may be driven by epigenetics:  addiction, depression, anxiety, fear conditioning, and that’s just the bits we’re beginning to understand.  Yes.  What scares you might be related to what scared great grandma.  One experiment with mice shocked the feet of the mice when a cherry blossom smell was introduced.  The mice babies from the mothers . . . who had never been shocked . . . were scared when they smelled cherry blossoms.  The impact on the baby mice from the experience of their mothers was transmitted . . . without genetic change.

So, Lysenko was not totally wrong.

The health implications are stunning.  Can there be a pill that you take that switches “on” a weight loss enzyme?  Maybe.  What other conditions can we change?  Can we make Kardashians attractive?  Sadly, no.

But beyond that, it may go to explain weird things . . . motherly love?  The baby’s DNA is floating around inside the mother (you can determine a baby’s sex through a blood test of the mother, so, the DNA is there).  How does this impact the way a mother bonds with a baby?

What about surrogate moms?

What about all of the things that we can change?  We can’t make ourselves smarter through epigenetics, but . . . can we make ourselves better?

Like I said – this is weird territory, and we have a LOT more questions than answers.  And, fortunately, we have plenty of mangos to worship.  Just don’t compare epigenetics to Johnny Depp’s sweet potato.

Author: John

Nobel-Prize Winning, MacArthur Genius Grant Near Recipient writing to you regularly about Fitness, Wealth, and Wisdom – How to be happy and how to be healthy. Oh, and rich.