We're raising generations of MUTANT KIDS, says Icelandic study
Trend to later dadhood drives evolution of X-men. Sort of
The trend for women to have children with older chaps than of yore is causing many more mutations among children, according to a study of the genetics of Icelandic families. There's no call to panic regarding the new generations of mutant kids, however: they shouldn't be unduly prone to either troublesome superpowers nor more humdrum and unpleasant conditions such as autism.
The new info comes in a wide-ranging study carried out by boffins at Reykjavik firm deCODE Genetics, which holds DNA info on a high proportion of Icelanders. The results have been deemed important enough to be published in headline-birthing boffinry mag Nature this week.
It seems that the greater number of mutations produced as dads become older is down to the fact that a chap's wedding tackle continually manufactures new sperm by dividing old ones, which naturally means that as the years go by the ready-use sperm in his firing chamber will be the result of more and more divisions in the past. Each division is another chance for a mutation to occur, so that sperm from an older man will always contain more mutations than sperm from a whippersnapper, and these mutations will naturally be passed on to any children he may have. Ladies, by contrast, are issued their entire load of eggs at a relatively young age, and so have many fewer chances to produce mutant ones.
In general, if a nipper has a mutation, it will be the result of an event in dad's genitalia rather than mum's.
One should remember though that all kids are actually mutants anyway, no matter how young their parents are. According to the deCODE Genetics analysis, the five-year increase in average age of dads in Iceland over the period 1980 to 2011 (from 28 to 33 years old) will mean that the average nipper's mutation count will have climbed from 60 to 70.
This causes some medical boffins and biologists to be concerned on general health grounds, as more mutations could mean an increase in the number of kids with autism and certain other disorders. This wouldn't really be perceptible to ordinary folk, but it could drive up medical costs - and of course every individual case is a tragedy.
That said, as deCODE boss Kári Stefánsson points out to Nature, Icelandic dads used to be a good bit older than they are now: from 1600 to 1800 Icelander chaps didn't usually get a chance at fathering kids until they were 34 at least, and the place wasn't overrun with autistic kids or anything.
Furthermore, as any fule kno, mutations are the only way that evolution can happen. If mutations had suddenly stopped at some point in the past, we'd all still be monkeys or protomammals or amoebic slime or whatever.
“You could argue what is bad for the next generation is good for the future of our species,” Stefánsson tells the boffinry mag.
This raises the prospect that the older dad of today and his mutation-packed gonads could propel us more swiftly to a future in which our kids start turning up with handy (or anyway impressive) X-Men style atributes such as the ability to shoot frikkin lazor beams out of their eyes, or anyway greater intelligence, or more opposable digits etc.
The flaw there is that one might well argue that modern human civilisation has largely eliminated natural selection and survival of the fittest: a dullard or other genetically sub-par type, in some circumstances anyway, would seem just as likely (if not more) to propagate his or her genes as someone with useful abilities is.
Deep waters, these. Regardless of such matters, the actual paper is here. ®
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