Central Roller Club

Genes Can Drive You Nuts

by Hans Roettenbacher


Recently, I read an article in the Seattle Times that struck a responsive chord. It described the research done by Dr. Theodore Friedman and his co-workers, Douglas J. Jolly, Abby C. Esty and H. Uli Bernhard at the University of California San Diego Medical School.

They isolated and copied a human gene that sometimes goes awry. When it does, it produces severe retardation and causes its victims to mutilate themselves by chewing off their fingers and lips. It's called the Lesh-Nyhan Syndrome to honor the physicians who first identified it. The syndrome appears once in every 100,000 births. Considering the current population of the planet, it isn't rare anymore. Since this syndrome is genetic in origin, there is no cure. In early infancy the victims (all males because the gene is carried on the sex chromosome) appear to be normal. Before they are a year old the process starts and they begin snapping at anyone who comes near. Nyhan says that at one time kidney failure brought early death but that complication can now be controlled. (Wonderful) And Friedman says that standard tests can detect carriers and identify affected fetuses in the womb. That should be a great help to the delivering pediatrician in case the little bugger is precocious and starts snapping at birth.

  The genetic engineering in the gene copying is new only in these instances. (Why anyone would want to copy a gene like that wasn't explained.) There were already gene modification undergoing practical applications. It's a field with a big future. I only hope some common sense (rare in the scientific community) prevails. I've gotten used to the lunacy in the medical profession on the periphery of aberrant cases. I wonder, though, if there would be any change in treatment if one of those little snappers wandered into the john while a doctor was using the urinal and...well you know.

What caught my attention about the Lesh-Nyhan syndrome was that we have a similar aberrant manifestation in the gene for rolling. Sometimes it too goes awry. There's a lot we don't know about it but there are a few things we know for damn sure. We know: (1) It can produce a wide variety of performance. (2) It is not located on the sex chromosome. (3) It is a heterozygous gene. (4)It sometimes goes awry and makes birds self-destruct. We also know that we need to consider more than the gene for rolling in order to make sound rollers consistently.

 The most pitiful example of the self-destruct syndrome can be found in parlor rollers. When they have it bad, they can make you sick your stomach. When flying rollers have it bad, it's over fast. I'll never forget one particular self-destruct act I witnessed and I never saw another one like it. It was a winter in Colorado, where you can fly about 350 days a year. The ground was frozen as hard as concrete. I was flying one of the young bird kits. When the kit was about 400 feet high, a young hen pulled out and hovered over the back pasture for about ten seconds, like a kestrel getting ready to stoop on a field mouse. The she cut a terrific spin. I knew as soon as she started that she never intended to stop. It was as though she had picked her spot and time to self-destruct. After she hit I walked out there. She was stretching her legs for the last time. Then she was dead. What she had done appeared to be intentional. It was as though she had been programmed to do that at that time in her life. It Wasn't the first rolldown I had ever seen but it was the one that me examine the phenomenon from a different perspective. I concluded that the only reasonable explanation was that it was triggered by genetic programming--genetic predetermination.

   Genes are composed of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid -- not related to the acid in car batteries), as you know. Some of our DNA is interchangeable with that of all other life forms on this planet, including plants. Genes have only one function: To direct the production of an enzyme messenger to carry a special program message. The genes get hitched together like freight trains to form chromosomes -- each gene chain on each chromosome in its allotted position for proper delivery to its destination. (And they are infinitely better at spot delivery than are the railroads.)

 Picture all those chromosomes consisting of chains of genes and all those genes firing off an enzyme containing a special and specific program so that every cell of the developing embryo will be programmed and everything that bird will ever be will be determined before it ever breaks out of the shell. It's incredible to think that anything as small as an enzyme can package the equivalent of the memory bank of a relatively sophisticated computer and can deliver instructions that remain viable for as long as the bird lives. Barring accident, predation, disease, or human intervention, the bird will develop in accordance with the program imprint it received in the egg. There's nothing we can do later to change it. It will also pass on everything it has received, both good and bad, to its own offspring. So obviously, the key to control is to get a handle on those programs. How does mother nature work that? Nature operates in an open environment with competition within a species, with other species, predation, etc. to determine survival and fitness for reproduction. In an open environment there would be no rollers at all because they would be easy meat for a variety of predators and would thereby get culled out. Roller are the product of an artificial environment created by man for his own enjoyment. They are sheltered, protected from predators, provided with food, grit, and water, and reasonably private perches and nesting boxes. They are given Security for as long as they please their provider. But what is actually happening is that birds nature would have eliminated get to live in comfort and reproduce--not through natural selection but through matings determined by their benefactor. The matings selected by their benefactor are not often in harmony with nature's processes. Too many are based upon incomplete and faulty information, maybe even ignorance--in isolated cases. Most matings are made by the by-guess-and-by-gosh method, wishful thinking, and the "blending" approach--as if genetic material can be mixed like paint pigments. Are there any "mea culpas" when they don't work? There should be when we coop them up. Select the matings and allow them to produce young according to our plans, we have interfered with what would otherwise have been natural selection in nature's evolutionary process. We have diddled with mother nature. And we have also ignored one of nature's primary rules: Adapt or die! (Has anyone seen a dinosaur lately?) The rule applies to all life on the planet. The champions at adaptation are the bacteria families. They can do it in minutes. Not only that but they can pass on the know-how to their very next generation. We are at the end of the food chain for other forms of life on the planet. But we are in the no favorites. Homo sapiens carry no more weight than do bacteria. So, if we stray too far from nature's processes in mating the rollers they will either self-destruct or panic and fly away. Either way, We don't get a chance to screw them up further. Nature's only interest in pigeons is that they be fit to survive and reproduce their species. Homo sapiens tend to ignore that in favor of their own interests-- some of which are downright frivolous and 180 degrees out of phase with reality. We demand immediate gratification. We just ain't in step with the real ruler.