All in the Family


                             Uncle Fred

“Unlock the family story in your DNA,” proclaims an ancestry website. Sounds harmless enough, so why does that fill me with dread?

Sure, I could discover there’s royalty in my Lithuanian DNA—perhaps a duke or a duchess—or a brave knight who fell at the Battle of … wherever. More likely, however, I’ll find some distant cousin who died face down on the bar floor after winning a Krupnikas-drinking contest. Perhaps a serial goat rapist or ax murderer, or some nutcase beheaded for questioning the birth certificate of King Mindaugas, the first (and only) crowned king of Lithuania.

Besides, thanks to modern science, I already know plenty about my DNA. Oh, the stories it could tell.

For one thing, I share almost 99 percent of my DNA with chimps and bonobos, and over 98 percent with gorillas. Though most of these relatives still live in Africa, I did meet one of them a few years back at the Bronx Zoo in New York. I was strolling through their Congo Gorilla Forest exhibit, when all of a sudden there he was—a full grown, male western lowland gorilla.

He was leaning against a tree stump, gazing off into space with a forlorn expression. Stepping closer to the glass separating us—which protects them from our human respiratory diseases—I paused to look into his face. He looked back at me in a way I will never forget. For one profound moment, there was some sort of connection between us. In that great face, I saw not a gorilla, but a personable presence, someone I could relate to. I have no idea what went on in his mind. Perhaps it was: “Why aren’t you in here instead of me?”

I’ve never been able to look at a gorilla in captivity since. Don’t think I could handle seeing one of my relatives locked up that way, despite all the arguments for conservation and education made by zoos. Supposedly, we humans are more advanced, with our superior big brains and all. The way things are going lately, though, sometimes I feel it is our species that should be locked up.

Met another African relative—though not in the flesh—back in 2007. She, or what was left of her, was on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Lucy her name was. That’s what the scientists who found her fossilized bones named them, after the then popular Beatle song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. She lived over 3 million years ago, in what is now called Ethiopia. Though belonging to a different genus—Australopithecus—she was a fellow hominid. Next to her precious bones, the museum showed a life size model of what she might have looked like. She was much shorter than me—only three-and-a-half feet tall—with a pelvis that was all female. Her face was only a reconstructed one, but again I had that strange feeling of connectedness across the eons, that she and I were still part of the same family tree. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but she reminded me a little of my great Aunt Lavinia. Her eyes seemed to say: “We are all African.” For that is indeed where our human line branched off from other animals. Together with gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees, we share much of the same DNA, along with the same common ancestor.

Turns out I have oodles of relatives, all over the planet. Many of them are fellow primates. Though not as close as African apes, my orangutan relations over in Borneo and Sumatra share almost 97 percent of my DNA. Not far behind are monkeys, at 93 percent. Whether I’m looking into an orangutan’s face or a monkey’s, it’s hard not to see the resemblance, though some of them might take this as an insult.

There’s even a fish, known as the zebra fish or zebra danio, with whom I share 85 percent of my DNA. A popular aquarium fish as well as research subject, this little freshwater minnow’s ancestors originated on the Indian Subcontinent. Dogs, by comparison, share only 84%, which just goes to show that you can’t always tell who your relatives are just by looking at them.

And next time you read about some new medical discovery involving some poor laboratory mice sacrificed for the good of humankind, ponder this: they share 90 percent of our DNA, which of course is why we use them in the first place, and why E.B. White’s classic children’s book Stuart Little still tugs at our heart strings.

Admittedly, some of my relatives are farther removed. For example, I share only about 60 percent of my DNA with a banana, and try as I might, I just can’t see any resemblance there. With roundworms, it’s only 21 percent, though I suspect some families share a much larger percentage.

Within our own species, there’s only a tiny difference in DNA among all humans on earth—about 0.1 percent. Regardless of race or national origin, we are far more alike than not.

Of course, even though we may share significant percentages of our genetic material, key differences remain in how our genes are sequenced, which does explain why most members of my family gallery don’t look like mice or fish (except for Uncle Vinnie). We don’t even know what many of our genes do. Within the human genome, we still possess many genes inherited from our evolutionary past that are not used because they no longer serve any useful purpose. So it’s important not to read too much into the fact that we share some of our genes with a banana.

But the mere fact that these mutually inherited genes are there reveals a more important truth. We are all related— humans, apes, mice, fish, bananas, roundworms, bacteria—all life on earth. It’s right there in the fingerprints of our DNA.

According to a study published in the journal Nature, evolutionary geneticists have traced this material back 3.8 billion years to what is called LUCA (last universal common ancestor). This remote ancestor may have resembled the strange organisms that still exist on earth within hot volcanic vents found deep under the oceans. Talk about long distant relatives. But from that ancient trunk would eventually spread the branches of our tree of life. It’s all in the family.

©Gene Twaronite 2016

A Nice Cave with a View

The Absurd NaturalistAN Transparent

Recently I signed up for a DNA test at one of those ancestry sites. It was a little pricey, but the idea intrigued me. Since my family originated in Lithuania, I fancied there might be some kings or brave knights of old, or at least a wizard (vedlys) or two in my background.

After sending in the usual saliva swab, I waited anxiously for the results. Months went by without a reply. Finally, I decided to call the company.

I had to go through three different people before I was transferred to the head honcho. “Yes, Mr. Twaronite, we have your lab results here. You may want to sit down for this.” I did not like the sound of this. The last time someone used those words was when the police called to tell me that my stolen car had been located at the bottom of the La Brea tar pits.

“Your ancestry is most unusual, Mr. Twaronite. In fact, we would like to perform some additional tests on you. If you give permission, you might even appear in a research paper. Would you be willing to come down to our office?”

“Not until you tell me what’s going on. What do you mean unusual? Are my genes abnormal? Is there some kind of disease I should know about? Am I gonna die?”

“No, you’re not going to die, at least not yet.”

“What is it then? Is it something about my ancestors? OK, so maybe I’ve got some bad dudes in my background. I can live with that. Whatever it is, please tell me!”

“When we started comparing your DNA matches to look for common ancestors, there was nothing at all surprising in your recent background. You have a few matches in old Vilnius—a seventeenth-century tavern keeper on your maternal side, and an undertaker and gypsy on your paternal side—and some more recent relatives in Kaunas. But as we plotted farther back, your genes simply went off the charts. You’ve heard of Neanderthals, Mr. Twaronite?”

“Of course I’ve heard of them. An early human that ran around Europe and Asia during the last Ice Ages, right? Muscle-bound guys with big brows, lived in caves. I’ll bet some of them even lived in Lithuania. So what are you saying—that I’ve got a few Neanderthal genes in my background? I guess it’s possible that some of my ancestors might have messed around a bit—hey, we’re all human. Now that I think about it, I remember reading somewhere that all modern humans have a few of their genes kicking around in us. So what’s the big deal?”

“Yes, it is true that most humans of European or Asian ancestry possess a small percentage of Neanderthal genes, somewhere around 1 to 4%. Indeed, as much as 20% of the Neanderthal genome may exist in human populations today. But yours is a special case, Mr. Twaronite. Let us just say that in your genetic makeup Neanderthals are exceptionally well-represented.”

“Are you saying that I’m some kind of Alley Oop? I can assure you, I don’t look like that at all. What kind of percentage are we talking about?”

“Near as we can figure, it’s close to 63%. So far as we know, no other human on earth possesses such a high percentage of Neanderthal genetic material. That’s why we’d like to study you as soon as possible.”

“So what you’re telling me is that my ancestors not only hooked up occasionally with Neanderthals—they had the hots for them. Does that make me some kind of freak or something?”

“Not at all, Mr. Twaronite. Neanderthal genes possess many fine qualities advantageous to human survival, such as resistance to certain diseases and the ability to adapt to cold climates. You should be proud of your lineage. Indeed, your genetic signature matches up closely with a small group of Neanderthals living along the Baltic Sea in Lithuania approximately 35,000 years ago. They were probably some of the last living members of their species before they became extinct.”

“I guess that makes me a bit of a caveman.”

“Well, I wouldn’t put it quite that way. While some Neanderthals constructed elaborate huts, many did make use of the limestone caves common to much of Eurasia. These were not simple caves, mind you, but highly organized homes, with separate spaces devoted to sleeping, eating, and socializing. Despite the popular stereotypes, these early humans shared much in common with our own species. Their brain size was similar to our own. They fashioned complex tools, and even buried their dead. Let’s just say you’re more Neanderthal than anyone alive today.”

“You know I have been feeling some strange urges lately. It seems to be getting warmer and warmer around here. Sometimes I feel like heading north to a colder climate. Meet some new people. Find a nice cave with a view.”
                                                    ©Gene Twaronite 2014

Originally published in 5enses December 2014

Read this and other essays in Gene’s new book The Absurd Naturalist. Available now from Amazon