In 2003, after 13 years of study, international researchers working on the groundbreaking Human Genome Project published their findings. For the very first time, the genetic building blocks that make up humans were mapped out, allowing researchers “to begin to understand the blueprint for building a person,” according to the project's website. Humans are now known to have between 20,000 and 25,000 genes, but researchers still have much to learn about these small segments of DNA. Below, we’ve listed a few facts about gene expression, genetic diseases, and the ways genes make us who we are.
1. The word gene wasn’t coined until the 20th century.
Although “father of genetics” Gregor Mendel conducted his pea plant experiments in the mid-1800s, it wasn’t until 1909 that Danish botanist Wilhelm Johannsen became the first person to describe Mendel's individual units of heredity. He called them genes—derived from pangenesis, the word Charles Darwin used for his now-disproven theory of heredity (among other ideas, Darwin suggested that acquired characteristics could be inherited).
2. On a genetic level, all humans are more than 99 percent identical.
Humans have a lot more in common than we might be inclined to believe. In fact, more than 99 percent of our genes are exactly the same from one person to the next. In other words, the diversity we see within the human population—including traits like eye color, height, and blood type—is due to genetic differences that account for less than 1 percent. More specifically, variations of the same gene, called alleles, are responsible for these differences.
3. Genes can disappear or break as species evolve.
Thanks to a combination of genes, most mammals are able to biologically produce their own Vitamin C in-house, so to speak. But some point throughout the course of human history, we lost the ability to make Vitamin C when one of those genes stopped functioning in humans long ago. “You can see it in our genome. We are missing half the gene,” Dr. Michael Jensen-Seaman, a genetics researcher and associate professor of biological sciences at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, tells Mental Floss. “Generally speaking, when a species loses a gene during evolution, it’s usually because they don’t need it—and if you don’t use it, you lose it. All our ancestors probably ate so much fruit that there was never any need to make your own Vitamin C.” Jensen-Seaman says humans also lost hundreds of odorant receptors (proteins produced by genes that detect specific smells) because we rely mostly on vision. This explains why our sense of smell is worse than many other species.
4. Elizabeth Taylor’s voluminous eyelashes were likely caused by a genetic mutation.
A mutation of the aptly named FOXC2 gene gave Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor two rows of eyelashes. The technical term for this rare disorder is distichiasis, and while it may seem like a desirable problem to have, there can be complications. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, this extra set of lashes is sometimes “fine and well tolerated,” but in other cases they should be removed to prevent eye damage.
5. Genes involved in sperm are some of the most rapidly evolving genes in the animal kingdom.
Throughout much of the natural world, a class of genes called sperm competition genes are becoming better and better at fertilizing eggs. This is true for various species, including some primates and marine invertebrates. Consider promiscuous primates, like chimpanzees, whose females mate with multiple males in a short period of time. As a result, the males are competing at the genetic level—via their sperm—to father offspring. “What’s happening, we think, is there’s sort of an arms race among genes that are involved in either sperm production or any aspect of male reproduction,” Jensen-Seaman says. Essentially, the proteins in these genes are changing to help males rise to the occasion.
6. A “zombie gene” in elephants might help protect them from cancer.
In a 2018 study published in Cell Reports, researchers from the University of Chicago found that a copy of a cancer-suppressing gene that was previously “dead” (or non-functioning) in elephants turned back on at some point. They don’t know why or how it happened, but this reanimated “zombie gene” might explain why elephants have such low rates of cancer—just 5 percent die from the disease, compared to 11 to 25 percent of humans. Some have suggested that a drug could theoretically be created to mimic the function of this gene in order to treat cancer in humans.
7. Octopuses can edit their own genes.
Cephalopods like squids, cuttlefish, and octopuses are incredibly intelligent and wily creatures—so much so that they can rewrite the genetic information in their neurons. Instead of one gene coding for one protein, which is normally the case, a process called recoding lets one octopus gene produce multiple proteins. Scientists discovered that this process helps some Antarctic species “keep their nerves firing in frigid waters,” The Washington Post notes.
8. The premise of the 1986 film The Fly isn’t completely absurd.
After a botched experiment in The Fly, Jeff Goldblum morphs into a fly-like creature. Surprisingly, that premise might, uh, fly—at least on some genetic level. Although different researchers come up with different estimates, humans share about 52 percent of the same genes with fruit flies, and scientists figure that the number is roughly the same for house flies.
So, could Jeff Goldblum theoretically turn into a human-fly hybrid if his genes got mixed up with the insect's in a futuristic teleportation device? Not exactly, but there are some scientific parallels. “With genetic engineering, we can select genes and insert them into other organisms’ genomes,” DNA researcher Erica Zahnle tells the Chicago Tribune. “We do it all the time. Right now there’s a hybrid of a tomato that has a fish gene in it.”
9. Our genes might prevent us from living more than 125 years.
Despite advances in medicine, there might be a biological cap on how long humans can stick around. Several studies have suggested that we’ve already peaked, with the maximum extent for human life falling between 115 and 125 years. According to this theory, cells can only replicate so many times, and they often become damaged with age. Even if we’re able to modify our genes via gene therapy, we probably can’t modify them fast enough to make much of a difference, Judith Campisi from the Buck Institute for Research on Aging tells The Atlantic.
“For such reasons, it is meaningless to claim that most human will live for 200–500 years in the near future, thanks to medical or scientific progress, or that ‘within 15 years, we'll be adding more than a year every year to our remaining life expectancy,’” the authors of a 2017 study write in Frontiers in Physiology, citing previous studies from 2003 and 2010, respectively. “Raising false hopes without taking into account that human beings are already extremely ‘optimized’ for lifespan seems inappropriate.”
10. The idea that a single gene determines whether you have attached or unattached earlobes is a myth.
Forget what you may have learned about earlobes and genetics in middle school. While your genes probably play some role in determining whether you have attached earlobes (a supposedly dominant trait) or unattached earlobes, the idea that this trait is controlled by a single gene is simply untrue. On top of that, earlobes don’t even fall into two distinct categories. There’s also a third, which University of Delaware associate professor John H. McDonald calls intermediate earlobes. "It doesn't look to me as if there are just two categories; instead, there is continuous variation in the height of the attachment point," McDonald writes on his website. A better example of a trait controlled by a single gene is blood type. Whether you have an A, B, or O blood type is determined by three variations—or alleles—of one gene, according to Jensen-Seaman.
11. No, there isn’t a "wanderlust gene" or "music gene."
Every now and then, new studies will come out that seem to suggest a genetic source for various personality traits, preferences, or talents. In 2015, there was talk of a “wanderlust gene” that inspires certain people to travel, and several other reports have suggested musical aptitude is also inherited. However, like many things in science, the reality isn’t so simple. “Part of the problem is that when we’re in school, we learn examples of traits that are controlled by a single gene, like Mendel’s peas, and we start to think that all variation is determined by a single gene,” Jensen-Seaman says. “But other than a variety of rare genetic diseases, most of the interesting things in medicine, or in human behavior or human variation, are what we call complex traits.” These complex traits typically involve hundreds—if not thousands—of genes, as well as the environmental factors you’re exposed to throughout your life.
12. DNA testing kits can’t tell how smart you are.
Much like your talents and personality, intelligence is also a complex trait that's difficult to measure because it’s influenced by many different genes. One 2017 study identified 52 genes associated with higher or lower intelligence, but the predictive power of those genes—or ability to tell how smart you are—is less than 5 percent. Another study from 2018 identified 538 genes associated with intelligence, which have a 7 percent predictive power. Put simply, no DNA testing kit can accurately predict whether you're a genius or dunce, even if the company claims it can. And, even if scientists make improvements in this field of study, DNA tests can't account for the environmental factors that also influence intelligence.
13. Your genetic makeup determines whether you think your pee smells funky after eating asparagus.
Do you recoil from the scent of your urine after eating asparagus? If so, you’re among the nearly 40 percent of people who are able to detect the smell of metabolized asparagus in pee, according to a study of nearly 7000 people of European-American descent that was published in The BMJ's 2016 Christmas issue. (The BMJ has an annual tradition of publishing strange and light-hearted studies around this time of year, and the asparagus pee study is no exception.) Again, there isn’t one gene in particular to pin the blame on, though. Multiple olfactory receptor genes—and 871 sequence variations on said genes—are involved in determining whether you have a talent for sniffing out asparagus pee.