Skip to content

The Whippet #129: Lethal Allele

McKinley Valentine — 8 min read

On this page


So, newsletter continues below as usual, but first some cool news:

I’ve been hired as a writer/researcher for Season 7 of Hard Quiz! For international readers, it’s a quiz show on ABC (the national broadcaster, modelled on the BBC but A for Australian), hosted by comedian Tom Gleeson. Each week there’s four normal people (I mean, not comedians) who are huge nerds about some topic or other.

Each contestant gets questions specific to their chosen topic (so each episode — I assume — I’ll be assigned a topic to research and write questions for):

Some previous contestants’ topics have been:

Sailor Moon, Nelson Mandela, Japanese railways, the first Persian empire, milk, garlic, dugongs, Dolly Parton, Black Books, the Seattle Seahawks, the human eye, Ducati motorcycles, penicillin, Islamic political movements, Game of Thrones, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the Brooklyn Bridge, Kurt Cobain, typewriters, Little House on the Prairie, coffee, origami, BTS, George Orwell, French cheeses, the Zimbabwe national cricket team, rollercoasters, the Jonestown Massacre, whales, Pearl Harbour, Ned Kelly, violins, the Russian Revolution, vintage Australian washing machines, KISS, thermodynamics, Tom Hanks, the wives of Henry VIII, the Eurovision Song Contest, flags.

You can’t watch an episode without immediately trying to figure out what topic you’d choose, what you reckon you could be tested on and make a good showing.

(It’s a fun question to think about, even if you haven’t watched it. Tell me what your topic would be, if you want)

Leave a comment

If you found the above list of disparate things oddly pleasing for some reason,* may I recommend the show Alasdair Lists Everything? Which, and I really can’t emphasise this enough, consists of Alasdair Tremblay-Birchall listing everything. He performed it every day for the whole Edinburgh Fringe Festival, so 25 hours all up, without repeating any of the things. It’s pleasing in a way that’s hard to articulate.

* If you have no idea how that could be oddly pleasing, I’m sorry, I don’t think I can justify it.

It’s pre-Covid, but it feels very appropriate for the moment, very grounding. Like the world is full of complex problems crashing into other complex problems and 90% of it is outside your locus of control, but this, this you could get a handle on.

This comic gets more appealing by the day. Oh, um, image credit: Gary Larson. Feels almost silly to write that.

Behind the scenes at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum

Only a tiny amount of a museum or gallery’s collection is on display at any one time. Underground and behind the scenes there are (well-organised) rabbit warrens of artefacts and specimens and artwork. If you would like to illustrate this with metaphor, please feel free to draw your own iceberg.

The photos were taken by Chip Clark, who died in 2010. It took 8 hours to set up the dead parrot photo — pulling out all the drawers at different heights in careful arrangement and then getting people to clamber in there.

This is a link to the whole photoset (and you’ll want to zoom in), but the interview is also completely worth reading — how collections are actively used in research today, rather than just preserved and displayed, a lot of things I didn’t know:

After the specimens are each studied and documented, why is it valuable to keep them?

The specimens are like the raw data [of a study]. If we don't keep the raw data, we can't go back and validate an interpretation or a result. An essential element of good science is to be able to reproduce a finding, an interpretation or a result.

We also use them in new ways over time. Who knew in the 1930s that you can do molecular work with collections? Who knew that we would develop the kinds of imaging and chemical analyses that we can do now? As technology changes, old collections get new uses.

What are some reasons for keeping so many samples from each site?

You could look at our invertebrate collection—animals without backbones—and you could ask: Why do you have so many of these worms or these crustacea from the Gulf of Mexico?

In part because if they were collected at different points in time, we can learn something about how the environment is changing in the Gulf of Mexico. That information became particularly important after the Deep Horizon oil spill that occurred a couple of years ago.

Fun fact, the name for the sector that deals with collecting and curation is the GLAM sector — Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums.

People who work in the GLAM sector are not perpetually delighted by this, because they’re used to it, but come on.

Bonus GLAM content: this dwarf bean

Do what they say, turn on the sound. It’s like a pokemon. Maybe it’s the 214 days of lockdown talking, but I want to adopt one.

Lethal alleles

Speaking of Charles Darwin! A refresher on dominant/recessive genes, skip to the # if you already know this part.

Alleles are a version of a specific gene. So for a given gene, you will (assuming no extra chromosomes) have two copies of it, one from each parent. This is the punnet square thing you would have seen in high school, dominant and recessive genes.

A dominant gene means, if you have only one copy of it, the gene will be expressed, meaning you actually ‘have’ that trait. A recessive gene means you need two copies, one from each parent, for you to actually ‘have’ it.

Dominant: only one parent needs to have the gene to pass the trait on to you

Recessive: both parents need to have the gene to pass the trait on to you, BUT you might not be able to tell they have the gene, because if THEY only have one copy each, they won’t display the trait. So two brown-eyed people can have a blue-eyed kid because blue eyes are recessive. (False example, eye colour is actually the result of a few different genes but you get the gist.)

Phew, okay, I’m not a science communicator, I’m sorry.


Now the interesting bit!

A lethal allele is a variant of a gene that is fatal. Lethal alleles are never* dominant genes, because anything that a) is always passed on to your child and b) is fatal, would be survival-of-the-fittested out of the gene pool in a single generation.

* look forward to the next section

Wikipedia has a punnet square to demonstrate. The agouti gene determines what colour the coat of a wild mouse is, and there are a few variants, one of which — Ay — is a lethal recessive allele.

Lethal White Syndrome is a genetic condition of horses — one copy of the gene and the horse is born with some irregular white patches on its coat. Two copies of the gene and the horse is born all white, with blue eyes, and dies within a few days.

More on Wikipedia.

Achondroplasia, the most common cause of dwarfism, is a lethal allele. If a person is born with one copy, their leg and arm bones don’t fully develop, so they end up shorter overall. But if they have two copies of the allele, their ribcage doesn’t develop, and they don’t survive. This sucks because it means if two people with dwarfism want to have kids, they know, without genetic testing, that there’s a 1 in 4 chance their child won’t survive. I know tonnes of people can’t have kids at all, or have kids that don’t survive infancy, but you don’t usually know the cold maths in advance, which I think must make it a bit easier to squash your fears to the back of your mind.

(Side note, it feels a bit gross to change from talking about horses to talking about humans so fast? We’re all animals made up of gene pairs, so I don’t know why it should, but it does.)

Favism: the dominant lethal allele that doesn’t kill until it’s activated

…by eating fava beans.

Once activated, favism causes ruptured blood cells, jaundice and anemia, although with modern medicine it’s no longer fatal.

If you have the gene for favism, you’ll be fine until you eat fava beans (or are exposed to a few other chemicals, like napthalene aka mothballs). Fava beans — also called broad beans — are found in falafels, which is unfortunate because favism is common throughout the Middle East. The gene is also carried by roughly 10% of Africans and African-Americans. (All this info is from wikipedia by the way.)

Favism is passed down genetically because it’s possible to have kids before you trigger it, and because the gene also makes you resistant to malaria, which is evolutionarily advantageous.

From a letter of complaint to Ancient Babylonian administrators

“I am not getting water for my sesame field. The sesame will die. Don’t tell me later, ‘You did not write to me.’ The sesame is visibly dying. Ibbi-Ilabrat saw it. That sesame will die, and I have warned you.”

Written in 1600-1900 BCE, in Akkadian:

Rubbing of cuneiform tablet YBC 5471
Rubbing of the original clay tablet

Translation of the whole letter, via @TheAncientWorld:

Translation of Yale Babylonian Collection (YBC) 5471. Writer complains of lack of irrigation to their sesame fields and insists that the recipient reply instead of feigning ignorance of the letter.

Some people on twitter noted that it begins, more or less, “I hope this tablet finds you well —”

And here is a Babylonian map of irrigation systems and canals, though they’re much use without any water, not that Sin-id-dinam even cares.


Unsolicited Advice: A better question than ‘what do you do?’

There are a lot of questions better than ‘what do you do?’ but unfortunately most of them are either way too naff or way too personal to ask someone you’ve just met. You can’t be like, “Hi, I’m Howard, I’m a friend of Kate’s. What was the last thing that made you cry?”

What you want is something that:

  • sounds pretty normal, you’re not going too far off social script
  • has a range of possible interpretations, so they can dodge any topics they’re not comfortable talking about or don’t find interesting.

You want to say:

What are you working on at the moment?

They can tell you their job title if they insist, or what they’re actually working on at work (which will be a more specific and therefore interesting answer), or any hobbies, sidehustles, creative projects, etc, or “making my way through every single film JK Simmons has ever appeared in.” A lot of things can fall under ‘working on at the moment’. It allows for joke-responses, so you can evade the question without seeming evasive. It’s just an all-round upgrade!

I know this is only a tiny advice, but who doesn’t want even a tiny upgrade to their life, especially one so cost and effort-free.

Thanks for reading!

If you want to support The Whippet — please consider patronising me on patreon at this link.

Hope you’re doing okay out there!


Sign in or become a Whippet subscriber (free or paid) to add your thoughts.
Just enter your email below to get a log in link.