Genes and Why I Have No Red-Headed Offspring

February 27, 2017

I am the youngest of six children – all of whom have red hair. I am sure it was an interesting phenomenon to see when my parents went on outings.

Siblings - Genes

I am the alien-looking one in the front.

A National Geographic snip-it several years ago indicated that in 100 years red-heads would practically disappear only to crop up from time to time due to the right, but rare mixing of genes.  It also pointed out we are genetic mutants, developing fair skin and the accompanying red hair to better receive vitamin D.  Regardless, whenever I see a mother, father or the combination with a red-headed child and they exhibit no trace of a red hair gene I ask them where the hair came from.

I am confident this annoys them, but I cannot resist. It is interesting because no one ever asks me about my olive skinned youngest and how on earth I was able to produce such offspring. Perhaps I should take that into consideration next time.  People have asked me when they find out he is a twin if he and his twin sister are identical twins. I will just leave that there.

Olive Skin - Genes

There is a small part of me that is a little miffed my husband did not deliver on the other recessive red hair gene. My oldest sister is married to someone whose hair is dark, dark brown, yet seven of their ten children have red hair. I find this to be unfair, but of course I would not change any of my children’s tresses for any amount of money in the world.

So, how does all of that mixing of genes work?  Why didn’t any of my children get red hair and is it possible their children might exhibit the carrot top?

Long ago, Babylonia farmers knew that certain traits passed down among animals. A formal study of such things, we now know as genetics, did not happen until the mid-1800s when a monk and botanist, Gregor Mendel, experimented with pea plants in the monastery garden. As he cross-pollinated peas with different colors of seeds (red and white) he discovered that the first-generation of off-spring didn’t mix the characteristics and create pink seeds, but instead would produce just one color (red). As he continued his experiments with further generations of the cross-pollinating he discovered white recurred in later generations meaning the trait was not lost, but was being passed along in hidden form.

Mendel’s work described the basic laws of heredity (including recessive and dominant terminology for traits). FYI red hair is a recessive trait – not represented in offspring unless both parents carry the recessive trait.  My hair color determination and that of my siblings was easily predictable, as both of our parents had red hair.

It wasn’t until 1941 when it was discovered that genes weren’t just carriers of information, but also functioned as code for the production of proteins. A few years later, in 1944, it was determined that the composition of genes was made of deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA. Then, several years after that James Watson and Francis Crick won a Nobel Prize for deciphering the structure of DNA – proposing the double-helix structure: two strands of the material knit together by four base chemicals.

DNA - genes

Since then, scientists have connected certain traits to genes within a DNA strand. Successes in their analysis and recreation of them have led to new treatments for cancer and has allowed doctors to address certain birth defects.

In 2003 the vast majority of the mapping of the human genome was completed via The Human Genome Project. It discovered that more than three billion base pairs, which compose the rungs of the double helix-shaped ladder, make up some 20,000 distinct human genes.  They also give the coded instructions for the manufacture of proteins.

We now find ourselves in the ranks of genetic engineering.  While it as been around as long as farmers have cross-pollinated plants, it has morphed into the modern-day method of genetic engineering via recombinant DNA.  In 1973 two biochemists inserted altered DNA into E. coli, which marked the opportunity for future visions of using altered DNA in organisms to create products.

Synthetic DNA is now created in the laboratory.  An industry of genetically modified organisms (GMO) has developed that skips and/or modifies the process that may or may not occur over time within an organism.  For example, scientists have modified mosquito genes so that it cannot pass on dengue fever or malaria to humans.  They have inserted omega-3 fatty acids into a yeast strain to enhance the nutrition of breads and pastries made with the yeast.  These are genetically modified organisms.

Controversy surrounds these methods with critics siting concerns for human safety and long-term ecological issues.  The European Union has stricter rules for GMO approval than the United States, which in and of itself raises eyebrows and enrages many in the US.

From a human gene perspective, science has progressed to the point where you can learn more about your specific genes. There are three choices on the market I am aware of, which will give you deeper insight into your heritage:

  1. National Georgraphic’s Genograhic Project examines 150,000 different genetic markers and you can learn where your maternal and paternal bloodlines originated. You can purchase a kit here.
  2. 23andMe offers a similar service where you can also learn if you are a carrier for certain traits.
  3. adds your information to their searchable database.  My adopted cousin found her biological mother by submitting her DNA test here.

All involve a purchasing a test kit and then submitting a cheek swab. While I don’t have experience with any, they are very prevalent in the gene mapping market.

There is so much about creatures and humans in particular that we do not know, yet in just the last 160 years, since Mendel did his experiments with peas we have come quite far especially in the last 60 years.

One day my recessive red-hair gene might crop up in a grandchild or great grandchild. In order to do so, someone carrying my recessive trait must partner with someone else who carries the recessive trait.

If I am still around, I will be sure to post an update 😉

Until then, I hope you journey on to learn a little bit more about the story behind your characteristics.

xo the mama at mamabrains

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