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Survival of the Sickest: Dr. Sharon Moalem

ABook Cover Images I walked across the glacial debris field through the clouds and the continual rain I had a tremendous urge to pee. I was angry with myself for drinking a coffee prior to the hike yet surely a single cup should not have had such an effect. Usually when I I hike 6 km with an elevation gain of over 600 m, I would be consuming more liquid and sweating it out. Then I remembered Moalem’s book “Survival of the Sickest” Among other things, he described why persons of European genetic background seem to have an increased ability to survive in the cold. Needing to urinate when it turns cold is one of the ways we cope. I felt better already, if only I could find a place above the treeline to relieve myself.

As we hiked along the Iceline Trail in Yoho National Park with a guide from the Burgess Shale Foundation, we were looking at evidence for climate change on a geological time scale. There were constant jokes and kidding back and forth about wasting our time in college sitting in a bar discussing Oxygen Isotope Paleoclimate Proxy Data. Well, I’m afraid that I didn’t spend much time thinking about this kind of data, but it did occur to me that as we learn more about the human genome, we will probably find in the future genetic data being used as proxy to the world before our time.

In a previous blog about Saxons, Vikings and Celts, I presented information about the peopling of Britain based on DNA data. That very compelling book used mitochondrial DNA to track the female lineage and Y-Chromosome data to follow the male clans. The technique is being used in many other areas of the globe now so that eventually, there may be a better idea of how humans peopled the world.

What is interesting about Moalem’s book is that it looks at how humans have specifically adapted to a variety of environmental conditions over time. Genetic markers will be found to identify people whose background was exposed to these environmental conditions and I suppose eventually that information will be combined with the type of research being done by Sykes group at Oxford. Through this, I suspect a type of Genetic Paleo Data will be available to help us understand our past.

It was as I was browsing among the science books in Chapter’s recently, I noticed a “Staff Pick” signed by Leah called Survival of the Sickest. This intrigued me, so I picked the book off the shelf and glanced at the back cover. The big font asked 4 questions:

Was diabetes evolution’s response to the last Ice Age?
Did a deadly genetic disease help our ancestors survive the bubonic plaques of Europe?
Why are some people immune to HIV?
Can your genes be turned on – or off?

Could I resist a book like this? Well, No! No way at all! And if your interests are like mine, I’m sure you too will want to read this very recent addition to fine books by scientists which reach out to the public in an attempt to bring together our modern view of the world.

I found that I could hardly put down this book by Sharon Moalem. I felt totally engaged from cover to cover. From the first chapter, all about the genetic disease called hemochromatosis, I was totally hooked. When a friend first told me about his cousin with a disease which caused a total build-up of iron in the blood, I was incredulous. I thought the friend’s description of the disease seemed a little exaggerated as he indicated that the only relief for his cousin was constantly donating blood. And then, there it was described in exactly the same manner in this book. Not only that, but there was a linkage both to surviving the plague and the use of leeches in ancient (and as it turns out some modern) medicine.

Then Moalem continued with his discussion of the Ice Ages and how humans survived. It explained to me what our bodies do when cold, and thus explained my urges when it got cold on the Iceline Trail. Moalem talked at length of the research by Dr. Ken Storey out of the Carleton University in Ottawa. Ken and I had been fellow students in the same lab at the University of Calgary way back in the day, and I have been interested in following his work ever since he so excitedly told me about bringing frozen frogs back from apparent death. Moalem does a great job of tying Storey’s work to other research and what we know about the ice ages.

Moalem then examines effect of diets. As humans moved into the agricultural age, different diets became the standard for different groups of people. Depending on the choices made way back at the end of the Neolithic age, different mutations allowed for differential success. These differences continue in our age of globalization. Moalem examine different levels of virulence of disease organisms. A tremendous discussion regarding the fact we do not evolve alone. He looks too at how the microbes coevolve and that it is always a type of race. Moalem continues his discussion looking at junk DNA and epigenetics. He describes jumping genes and our immune system.

The final chapter of Moalem’s book is all about epigenetics. Needless to say, I was very pleased that I picked up this fantastic book. Thanks Leah, whoever you are!

Survival of the Sickest: Dr. Sharon Moalem

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