Sunday, June 05, 2005

Genetically Engineered Lesbians

Astounded scientists watched as their genetically altered fruit fly vigorously courted another fly. The amazing part? They were both female.

While performing experiments on whether instinctive behavior can have a genetic basis, scientists modified a female fruit fly with a male gene. To their surprise, the female flies began exhibiting the male courtship ritual with other females.

[From the New York Times June 3, 2005] It pursued a waiting virgin female. It gently tapped the girl with its leg, played her a song (using wings as instruments) and, only then, dared to lick her - all part of standard fruit fly seduction.

Conversely, when the female equivalent of this gene was administered to males, the males exhibited typical fruit fly female characteristics. They became shy, passive…and gay.

The transformed gene, fru, has long been known to be connected with mating in fruit flies as it coordinates the neurons which control movement during copulation. But scientists were not expecting to find that this gene also coded for behavioral patterns…and sexual orientation.

Over the last decade, there has been much speculation over the origins of instinctive behavior in the world of science. In the public arena, the debate over the origins of sexual orientation has been raging for even longer. Scientists believe that this discovery addresses both of these issues. Barry Dickson, senior scientist at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna and the lead author of the paper, says, “We have shown that a single gene in the fruit fly is sufficient to determine all aspects of the flies' sexual orientation and behavior… What [this] tells us is that instinctive behaviors can be specified by genetic programs, just like the morphologic development of an organ or a nose." In addition, the presence of this master gene for sexuality suggests that other genes may control other behaviors like “hitting back when feeling threatened, fleeing when scared or laughing when amused.”

Although the genome of a fruit fly is much less complicated that that of a human, the results of this study indicate that it may be possible that instinctual behavior is hard wired in our genes as in the genes of the fruit fly. Indeed, the simple fact that our genome is similar to that of the fruit fly seems to point to the possible presence of an undiscovered master gene for sexuality in humans as well. Barbara Culliton, from the Genome News Network, writes:

There appears to be a core number of genes that are essential for life and they all seem to exist in the fly. Human beings, doubtless have more genes than Drosophila (approximately 30,000 compared to 13,000) but, as Gerald M. Rubin, head of the Berkeley Drosophila Genome Project and lead author of one of the Science papers, says, "About 60 percent or more genes are conserved between fly and human." In other words, nature practices the addage against reinventing the wheel. If you’ve got a core set of genes that work, why not use them over and over again in just subtly different ways. "Complexity does not come from the number of genes but from the way in which they are used," according to Rubin. "Humans may have four copies of a gene where the fly has one, but if you look at the core proteome—the core set of parts—they’re not that different…The human is a supercomputer to the PC fly. It’s an organizational issue. The parts are basically the same."

Essentially, even though we humans have a more complex genome, these basic behavioral functions for life, if coded for in fruit flies, should also be coded for in our genes in some form.

The researchers involved in this study have voiced their hopes that their results will help move the debate regarding sexuality away from “the realm of morality and put it into the realm of science.” Indeed, other recent studies have also indicated that homosexuality may have a biological basis- thus shifting the debate on sexual preference from nurture to nature.

[From the New York Times May10, 2005] Using a brain imaging technique, Swedish researchers have shown that homosexual and heterosexual men respond differently to two odors that may be involved in sexual arousal, and that the gay men respond in the same way as women.The new research may open the way to studying human pheromones, as well as the biological basis of sexual preference.

Perhaps such research will help to convince the public that homosexuality is not unnatural or a chosen path as Yvette C. Schneider from the Family Research Council claims.

"Many misconceptions exist about the supposedly inborn nature of complex behaviors such as homosexuality...In reality, no scientific studies show an inborn cause for any such complex behaviors. In this day of shirking responsibility and blaming anything but ourselves for our actions, claims that someone is genetically or chemically structured to engage in dangerous or antisocial activities find increasing appeal. ...Without scientific evidence to support such claims, it is wrong and dangerously misleading to say that people are born homosexual and cannot change."

On the other hand, many people fear that the discovery of such a master gene for sexual behavior in humans, along with other biological evidence, could result in sexual orientation screenings of embryos and mass abortion. If such concrete evidence did arise, it would be interesting to see how conservative, anti-homosexual Americans could advocate aborting a “homosexual” fetus as most of them are also pro-life.

Some other notable posts on this article at:
AMERICAblog and Left2Right.