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No. 114: Nov-Dec 1997

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Gene Wars

In past issues, we have mentioned:

Sperm wars. Where an animal's sperm are polymorphic; some of which attack alien sperm, some dash directly to the eggs, etc. (SF#78)

Selfish DNA. Where animals are merely mechanisms by which DNA perpetuates itself and expands its domain. In other words, DNA calls the shots -- not us! (SF#11)

Now we learn about "gene wars." As is well known, genes are thought to control much of what goes on in a living organism. But are they only carriers of hereditary information? Not according to a long, very technical paper by L.D. Hurst et al. It seems that, like selfish DNA, genes have their own agendas. The insidiousness of this is seen in the first sentence of the paper's abstract:

"Self-promoting elements (also called ultraselfish genes, selfish genes, or selfish genetic elements) are vertically transmitted genetic entities that manipulate their "host" [as in "us'] so as to promote their own spread, usually at a cost to other genes within the genome."

You may not sense it, but your genes are struggling with each other, and you and/or your progeny will carry out the dictates of the victors of the "gene wars."

(Hurst, Laurence D., et al; "Genetic Conflicts," Quarterly Review of Biology, 71:317, 1996.)

Comment. Given the power that these "selfish genetic elements" can exert on our bodies, it is but a short step to imagining that they can also direct the course of evolution in ways favorable to their agendas.

In this interpretation, humans have evolved and are conscious and intelligent because these things are favorable to those genes that have conquered in the "gene wars." Natural selection seems to work at many levels in biology!

From Science Frontiers #114, NOV-DEC 1997. 1997-2000 William R. Corliss