Mutation: The Science of Survival

2003, Nature  -  49 min Leave a Comment
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Monster mutants lurk in the myths of many cultures, and we're fascinated yet fearful of nature's mutants. But mutants are closer to home than we think. Often invisible, mutations are happening all around us, in every living thing. They're crucial part of evolution. Now researchers are uncovering how mutations actually work and that may help us find cures for life threatening diseases. As we understand more about mutation we may discover more secrets of the history and future of life on this planet.

In 19th century America, people flocked to dime museums to view the odd and the unexplained. Dime museums were full of anything the American public would pay 10 cents to see. People were always been interested in the weird, the strange, the bizarre, the exotic and the unusual. For just 10 cents they came to see the worst that nature had on offer. Some creatures were fake products of an entrepreneur's imagination, but others brought us face to face with real mutations.

In Great Britain there was a celebrated sideshow freak Joseph Merrick, the famed elephant man. A tragic mutation within his genes gave rise to a disease called Proteus Syndrome. Large bony growths covered the right side of his entire body. A mutation is a change in our genes. Deep within every cell, our chromosomes hold the instructions for life and the genes are held on long and delicate strands of DNA.

They're like a recipe book, but sometimes there's an unexpected change in part of the recipe. The result is an altered or damaged gene that we call a mutation. For Joseph Merrick the mutation was so severe, he could never lead a normal life. He spent his adult years as a sideshow freak until he was rescued and offered shelter at the Royal London Hospital. His short life ended at the age of 28.

Toady such human tragedies are no longer a source of entertainment, but many of us are still fascinated by creatures that are one in a million. In West Fork, Arkansas, Fred Lally has spent 50 years collecting some of the most unusual reptiles. Fred has been fascinated by reptilian oddities all his life, and he now makes a living by taking his mutant pets on tour to summer county fairs. But of all the animal anomalies he encountered in his long career one stands hand a shoulders above the rest. Fred paid $20,000 for one of the rarest reptiles in the world - the snake named "Golden Girls."

In nature conjoined twins are rare, but they nearly always make the slot at the end of the evening news bulletins. In humans, if the embryo hasn't divided by the third week of pregnancy, then Siamese or conjoined twins may result. They're among the rarest of human beings. Only a few hundred pairs are born each year, more than half are stillborn and may live for only a few days. But are conjoined twins actually caused by mutation? Whether conjoined twins are mutations or not they're only the tip of the mutation iceberg. Mutations are happening every day to all of us, but most of the time they're invisible.