A question that has always fascinated me is how much influence your genes have on you versus your environment. I come from a family with a history of diabetes, and everyone in our family has a greater likelihood of getting diabetes due to our genetics. What determines who gets the disease and who doesn’t? Can we change how our genes affect us? This week’s American Horror Story brings up this question (but doesn’t offer any answers, obviously).
In this week’s episode, we were introduced to Johnny Thredson, the son of Dr. Oliver “Bloody Face” Thredson and poor intrepid reporter Lana. Lana finds out she’s pregnant after her rape two episodes ago, and despite her attempts at a self-induced abortion, seems to be on her way to giving birth to Johnny. Johnny grew up in foster care and killed animals as a teenager. His need to understand why he kills leads him to find his roots in Briarcliff and Bloody Face. He believes that due to his genetics, he was born to be a killer. It’s not that simple for him, no matter how elegant a solution that would be.
Even with the great recent advances, genetic science is still very new. We’ve known about genes since Gregor Mendel mated pea plants in Austria in the 1800s, and saw how they carry traits from one individual to their offspring, but it’s only been since the discover of the double helix that the sequencing of the genome began. By unraveling the blueprint of life, we’ve been able to look at how genes shape the people we are. What scientists found is so much more complex than we could imagine. There is almost no gene that is completely one-to-one for any trait. Not hair color, eye color or any disease. Every gene is dependent on the genes next to them for expression (remember junk DNA? Doesn’t exist).
Beyond genes, the environment in which a person grows up in has at least an equal amount of influence on them, if not more. Environmental factors can cause genes to replicate differently, or cause certain genes not to appear. The way a person is treated as a child can cause certain genes not to reproduce accurately, and the way you live now can change your DNA and influence your grandchildren’s health. So, if your family has a genetic disposition for diabetes, but you are able to avoid sugar for the most part, your individual likelihood of getting diabetes goes down. For example, the likelihood of “experiencing schizophrenia is 1%. When someone's second degree relative (e.g. aunt or uncle) has the condition, this risk rises to 2%. If someone's biological parent has schizophrenia, the risk is 13% and if someone's identical twin has the condition, the risk is 48%” (http://www.rethink.org/about_mental_illness/what_causes_mental_illness/family_history_and_y.html). If the disease was purely genetic, identical twins would have a 100% likelihood of getting the disease. Something else, some environmental factor, has to also be involved.
Johnny Thredson went looking for the answers to his own personality in his family history, but there’s no proof that being a murderer is genetic. It might be that there is a genetic component, and because he had a tough upbringing in foster care, the gene was able to express itself more than if he had been raised in a loving home with a lot of attention. Maybe his diet meant that his growing brain didn’t get enough nutrients, and the expression of certain genes was stronger for it. Maybe he was given attention for his early crimes and he learned that doing “evil” got him the attention that he needed, so he kept doing it. The interplay of genes and the environment feeds into how a person develops. What we’re learning from all different areas of science is that no one factor causes any trait, but that altering environmental factors can help prevent illnesses. Everything is influenced by everything else. Dr. David Shern, Ph.D. (MHA’s former CEO) and Dr. Andrea Blanch, Ph.D. liken the situation to germs. If the germs are present and the environment is ideal, they will make a person sick. Environmental factors can influence genes in the same way.
Johnny Thredson’s story sets the stage for a lot of interesting questions about what you actually inherit from your ancestors and what you get from your environment. American Horror Story won’t try to answer the question, but science is working diligently on it.
Note: The show is on hiatus until January 2. They’ll be a blog post next week, but not December 26. We’ll be back with the show on the second. Happy a safe and happy holiday season!