Science and the supernatural are not often linked but this week I ventured into the deep dark shadows of scientific literature on a Halloween quest. On my journey my clothes were covered in cobwebs and my lungs filled with dust from ancient books. My search was not in vain. I discovered the hidden side of genetics where vampires, witches and werewolves are rampant. Read on, only if you dare!
Many children will be dressing up as the popular comic mutant, Wolverine, on Monday. His powers include animal-keen senses, retractable claws and super-healing. In reality, animal and plant mutants arise from an often small change in their DNA sequence. This change can be damaging and result in disease or death. It can also be beneficial and lead to improved survival of the species. Many geneticists study mutants in order to figure out what different parts of the DNA do. While the characters of the X Men possess incredible powers such as control of magnetism or the weather, scientists have not let that stop them in naming mutations incredible things. Some of them are in fact Halloween themed.
WEREWOLF is an Arabidopsis (rockcress) mutant. Arabidopsis is a small flowering plant which is used worldwide to study plant biology. WEREWOLF is very appropriately named as the mutant plant has excessive root hairs. From conducting research on the mutant, scientists were able to determine that when WEREWOLF is properly expressed in the plant, it works with another protein to regulate root hairs.
Other seasonally appropriate Arabidopsis mutants are GOBLIN, GARGOYLE, MEDUSA, DRACULA, GREMLIN and AXIS OF EVIL!
Vampires need to be quick and efficient if they want to overcome their victim before getting a wooden stake to the heart. Recent research published in Nature about vampire bats may highlight how they achieve this. The ability of vampires to become bats is well documented in folklore so vampire bats are an ideal comparison. The new research details how vampire bats can detect hot spots where blood is flowing close to their victim’s skin. It was previously shown that they do this by sensing infrared thermal radiation. This is similar to the images that can be seen of animals and people under infrared cameras where areas of high heat are yellow and white.
The scientists demonstrated that the infrared sensors are located on the bat’s upper lip and adapted nose. The bat exploits modified nerve cells which are used to detect harmful heat (greater than 43°C) in other mammals. They are able to use these modified nerve cells as the heat they detect is much lower than this (around 30°C). The modification was traced back to a mechanism called alternative splicing. An example of this is if the precursors to a protein are A-B-C-D. Two different proteins might be formed by combining A-B-C-D or A-C-D. Vampire bats have adapted to use a different form of a protein, named TRPV1, in this way which enables them to detect hot spots before landing on their prey.
Perhaps this could lead to a novel method of testing the authenticity of a vampire as surely they can also detect hot spots for their blood sucking activities. If you see a vampire this Halloween though, perhaps the best advice is not to invite them in!
At the end of my quest, I came across a letter where the author wonderfully explains the genetics of being born a witch or wizard in Harry Potter. Witches and wizards live in a world where muggles (normal powerless people) are the majority and they are the minority.
Humans have two copies of each gene and traits (such as magic ability) are caused by variations in genes. One variation leads to the muggle trait (M), while the other can lead to the witch trait. These variations are called alleles. Muggles are MM meaning they have two copies of the muggle allele or they are MW meaning they have one muggle (M) and one witch (W) allele. Either way they are unable to perform magic as the muggle allele (M) is dominant. Witches/wizards must be WW, with two copies of the witch allele in order to have supernatural powers.
Harry Potter was the victim of bullying in Hogwarts as his mother had muggle parents. However, through the ingenious observation proposed by this letter, my illustration clearly shows that Harry Potter had the same witch alleles as every other witch and wizard in Hogwarts.
Happy Halloween from Science Calling!
Song SK, Ryu KH, Kang YH, Song JH, Cho YH, Yoo SD, Schiefelbein J, & Lee MM (2011). Cell Fate in the Arabidopsis Root Epidermis Is Determined by Competition between WEREWOLF and CAPRICE. Plant physiology PMID: 21914815
Gracheva EO, Cordero-Morales JF, González-Carcacía JA, Ingolia NT, Manno C, Aranguren CI, Weissman JS, & Julius D (2011). Ganglion-specific splicing of TRPV1 underlies infrared sensation in vampire bats. Nature, 476 (7358), 88-91 PMID: 21814281
Craig, J., Dow, R., & Aitken, M. (2005). Harry Potter and the recessive allele Nature, 436 (7052), 776-776 DOI: 10.1038/436776a
Top Image: Chaojoker / Wikimedia Commons