Cheese eaters are mutants

Coders digest. Or not...

The ability to digest milk, cheese and other dairy products is mostly down to your ethnicity, according to researchers at Cornell University. Northern Europeans are far more likely to have a genetic mutation that allows them to digest milk, than are those from Africa, or Asia, the team found.

In a study looking at the prevalence of lactose intolerance, the scientists discovered that people from cultures with a strong dairy farming tradition, incidences were as low at two per cent of the population. But those whose families hail from regions of extreme temperatures, where farming is difficult and animals are carriers of many diseases, close to 100 per cent of people were unable to digest milk properly.

To digest milk, you need to produce the enzyme lactase. Virtually all human infants can make lactase, for rather obvious reasons, but only genetic mutants continue producing it into adulthood. The mutation is particularly rare in Asian and African populations, but very common among Northern Europeans. In total, the study found that around 61 per cent of the global population is lactose intolerant.

"The implication is that harsh climates and dangerous diseases negatively impact dairy herding and geographically restrict the availability of milk, and that humans have physiologically adapted to that," commented lead researcher Paul Sherman, a professor of neurobiology and behaviour at Cornell.

But what of the implications for the technology industry? Coders are almost required by law to chow down on Pizza. Google even uses the cheesily-topped snack as part of its effort to harvest the best engineers from the US's universities.

But now we know that through no fault of their own (beyond choice of parents, and really, how much say do you get in that?) not everyone can digest milk, the accessibility of tolerable junk food becomes a matter of equal opportunities. How long before the first constructive dismissal case is launched? "They kept feeding me Pizza. I couldn't work because it made me sick..."

After all, if a company is supplying free food, doesn't it have an obligations to make sure all genetic predispositions are catered for?

One possible approach would be to merely accelerate the outsourcing trend, and only employ programmers native to a particular region so that the junk food is naturally suitable. However, this is likely to come under fire from racial equality campaigners, and rightly so.

But then are we going to see companies specialising in lactose tolerant or intolerant employees as a method of keeping the pizza bills low? Will there be mandatory genetic testing for prospective employees? Will specialist companies spring up to import junk food more suitable for the pizza-intolerant?

The researchers at Cornell may not realise it, but this study has opened up a whole can of worms. Speaking of which, can we offer you a worm? Or would you prefer a pizza? ®

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