Aside from baseball and competitive singing TV shows, there is likely no better American pastime than blaming things on your parents. Whether it’s that distinctive voice you use when you get mad or an impossible-to-kick barbecue ribs habit, everyone likely has something that they want to blame on the people that birthed and raised them. And there’s nothing that connects us more to our parents than our genes.
Indeed, The Simpsons once dedicated a whole episode to Lisa’s fear that she’d inherit Homer’s trademark stupidity due to an intelligence-decreasing “Simpson gene.” But what qualities do we truly inherit from our parents, and what characteristics do we develop over time from how we’re raised and develop? Eye and hair color are one thing, but can a child really inherit their parents’ wit (or lack thereof)? Is three-point shooting ability passed down?
There are a few genetic features that are expected, namely physical ones; there are also some traits that we get from our folks that may not immediately come to mind. And with other traits, science continues to debate the age-old query as to whether all that makes us “us” comes from the environment we are raised in or our own genetic makeup.
A key question: “Nature” or “Nurture”?
It’s a question hotly debated around both kitchen tables and scientific circles: Are we born with our best attributes entwined in our DNA? Or do we develop them over time from our environment?
It’s all based on the genetic blueprint.
A reminder from this Stated Cleary video tells us that DNA is the molecular blueprint that makes proteins, which in turn make cells, which form and eventually make a living thing, like a plant, a person, or a dinosaur. DNA is passed down in tightly-wound coils known as chromosomes. When people talk about genes being passed down, they’re talking about the genes within a person’s set of chromosomes that come from their mother and father.
Mark Payson, MD, is the practice director for the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine of Northern Virginia, and he states that there are many things that are “hardwired” into us from birth: “Certain traits, physical traits, are very clearly genetic. Our eye color, our hair color, our skin color. Our height. It’s all based on the genetic blueprint.”
These physical characteristics are often the most obvious features we inherit. The old, “He has his mother’s eyes!” of it all.
However, less identifiable traits, like parts of a person’s personality or someone’s interests, fall into a more debatable category. Did that love of tennis come from deep within your DNA, or was it because you were playing doubles with mom since the day you could pick up a racket?
Answering such questions with certainty can be nearly impossible. Genetics are at the very core of what makes us unique, thus making any attempt to study them fraught with variables. But there is one way scientists can gain a better understanding of how the genetic lottery can play out: twins. Specifically, twins with identical DNA.
Payson describes the useful findings of some of these studies: “People have done twin studies where they look at twins and they see how similar or different they are. The best studies are when they looked at identical twins that were separated at birth, and then 20, 30 years later, they meet each other.” Such revealing studies are a genetic bonanza for interested experts. “It’s amazing as to how similar they are sometimes,” Payson says.
There is no doubt upbringing and the nurturing, or lack of nurturing, of a talent or attribute can have an effect. Todd Graham, a biotechnology consultant at Delevan Street Biosciences, points out that some traits can be more like tendencies and require a certain amount of environmental support to flourish. “If someone has a trait to be tall, but is malnourished, it won’t come out as strongly,” explains Graham.
Despite the debate, there are plenty of traits that have clear or highly likely genetic ties, at least enough so that you can definitely throw them into your parents’ face when you’re feeling rebellious.
Blame genetics for never getting your shot in the NBA.
It may be all too obvious that something like height is passed down from your parents, so if both your folks are under 5’5″, your hoop dreams may be pipe dreams. But there are many signs that athletic ability itself can also be deeply hardwired into your genes.
Payson says that athleticism is unquestionably a mix of both genetics and upbringing, though there’s no doubting the clear physical gifts and abilities that some athletes inherit—it’s usually when you hear the phrase “natural athlete” get tossed around. Payson explains that there are “certain physical traits in terms of strength and how quickly your muscles respond and endurance that certainly you can be genetically predisposed to have.”
ACTN3 is a high-level muscle protein that is often associated with elite athletes. The muscle composition is just one of many factors that separates some Olympic athletes from the rest of us weekend joggers.
Graham discusses the variances in what effect genetics have on an athlete’s abilities: “There are a number of facts involved in such skills, and it’s not clear how well they are linked yet. We know that slow-twitch muscle versus fast-twitch muscle is important. Slow-twitch muscle is useful in sports that require explosive power, like track and field, baseball and football, while fast-twitch muscle is more useful in endurance sports like distance running.”
Genes go a long way, but if junior was raised since the age of 6 to eat, sleep, and breathe hoops, that certainly has an impact as well. Payson points out that becoming a pro athlete requires “years and years and years of high-level training. If your parent is an athlete and you grow up in that environment and you start doing that from a very young age, that is an enormous advantage.”
Just how much influence genetics has in sports versus development and practice remains a source of constant debate. Sports Illustrated’s David Epstein wrote a whole book seeking to explain “the Sports Gene,” and his takeaway mirrors that of other experts: that neither one factor on its own ensures athletic glory.
So just because neither one of your parents ever played in the big leagues doesn’t mean you won’t have a chance. Like the old adage that you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take, you also won’t be a superior athlete in 100 percent of the sports you don’t play.
Sneezing into the sun is a thing. And it’s hereditary.
Looking at the many odd things that children can inherit from their parents, perhaps no other shines as bright as one especially peculiar trait. There are certain people who will sneeze as a reflex just from catching sight of the sun or from entering a room with an abundance of light. It is called Autosomal-Dominant Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst syndrome, and the honest-to-goodness acronym for this particular condition is the ACHOO syndrome.
Are you a sun-sneezer? If so, it’s more than likely you’ll be able to blame this nose nuisance on your parents. Graham talks about the genetic nature of the ACHOO syndrome: “The European Archives of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology published research last March about how ACHOO syndrome was observed in 57 percent of a patient population in a hospital in Germany. ”
According to the study, a “familial disposition” to the syndrome was observed, meaning that the sun sneezing could be traced back on the family tree.
So if you greet your mornings with a smattering of mucus, feel free to blame the mess on your genes.
Blame your parents if you’ve got the taste palate of a picky five-year-old.
Most everyone has at least one favorite dish that is “just like mom made,” but what if this “mom” of yours is responsible for limiting the full potential of your tastebuds?
If you’re a supertaster, you are born with a different anatomy.
Payson says that there is a genetically gifted group of taste gods that walk among us: “There’s a phenomenon called ‘supertasters,‘ which are these people that seem to have an ability to taste a wider variety of taste than us poor average people, which certainly is thought to be genetic.”
If you were supertaster, you’d most likely already know it: Some vegetables would be unbearably bitter, most sugar would be too sweet to savor, and spicy peppers could send you running for the hills. One of the early forerunners of research on the super-taster front is Linda Bartoshuk, PhD, who revealed some of the biology behind this phenomenon in a feature for Yale Medicine.
“If you’re a supertaster, you are born with a different anatomy. [Everyone has] fungiform papillae, which are the little structures that hold taste buds. You have many, many more of them if you are a supertaster,” Bartoshuk said. “It is like reaching up and feeling something with 500 fingers as opposed to 50.”
Supertasting is not that uncommon, with roughly one-in-four Caucasians have the genetic makeup of a super-taster.
Is this another clear instance of genetics playing a role in how we perceive taste and smell? Payson says those tricky X and Y chromosomes may have something to do with it: “There are gender differences where women in general have a better sense of smell than men, there are certain smells that women in general are a little more aware of.”
The big takeaway is that the next time you find yourself in a fight at the dinner table with your folks, you can always blindside them with the old “It’s your fault I don’t have a super tasting abilities!”
DNA can sometimes be a grab bag of diseases.
Ultimately, one of the most significant reasons for knowing your genes and your genetic history is less about home runs and taste buds and more about knowing what kind of health issues you may face one day.
There is a significant list of diseases that are passed down genetically, such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, sickle cell anemia, and Marfan syndrome.
Sometimes a syndrome can occur if not all the genes are passed down. Payson points to conditions like Angleman and Prader-Willi syndromes, which develop because part of the genetic code in the chromosomes has been inexplicably deactivated. This is otherwise known as genetic imprinting: an unfortunate genetic circumstance that leads to the syndromes listed above, which are known for affecting the nervous system and can cause seizures, developmental disabilities, and speech deficits.
Marfan syndrome is another genetic disease that Graham calls “particularly notable.” This disease has had effects around the sports world recently because of it is commonly seen in tall, thin people…the very kind of people who seek to become NBA players.
“It is a condition related to problems with producing connective tissue, which can also result in heart issues such as mitral valve prolapse and aortic aneurysm,” explains Graham. He says that the syndrome has been found in some sought-after basketball prospects, forcing the league to start to pay special attention to the genetics of its all-star athletes.
Forget about your genetic past: The future is now!
Interest in preventing diseases and plain old scientific curiosity has propelled the science of genetics forward with blistering speed in the past decades.
Our genetics influence nearly everything about who we are and how we perceive the world.
According to Payson, the rate at which we are learning new things about our genes is stunning: “Our understanding of genetics has increased tremendously in the last 5 or 10 years.” He says that because of our ability to map out an entire human genome, “we are going to find so many things about people, and also susceptibility to various diseases.”
So there is some good news concerning heredity diseases: Scientists may be able to treat or plan for some of these syndromes that wait like ticking time bombs in our genetic blueprints. “From a medicinal standpoint,” Payson says, “we can determine what medicine will work best for you depending on how your body will process the medicine.”
Payson sums up the importance of our genes pretty succinctly: “Our genetics influence nearly everything about who we are and how we perceive the world.”
It is amazing to think that the most simple connection, parent to child, contains such a complex and incredibly detailed blueprint for every single human being. It can influence so much of who we are and who we’ll become.
So even though you can heap some blame on your folks for your less-than-noteworthy fastball or regular ol’ tastebuds, you can also be grateful for your best attributes because those have been passed down to you as well.