The shape shifting genes

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Aug 31, 2015, 09.07 PM IST

We have often heard of the nature Vs. nurture debate. But the newest concept in this discussion is the “shape shifting gene”. This is a fascinating phenomenon where one’s life experience can subsequently pass down to future generations, encoded in the genes.

We see this transmission of trauma to children via genes through what is called the ‘epigenetic inheritance’. A research team at New York’s Mount Sinai hospital analysed genes of children of holocaust survivors and concluded that they have increased likelihood of stress disorders. Another study on children born to Dutch women during severe famine during the end of the Second World War showed that the children had a higher propensity to schizophrenia.

At Emory University in Atlanta scientists did an experiment, the methodology of which makes me uncomfortable, but the results of which are rather critical. Mice were made to fear the smell of cherry blossom by pairing the smell with a small electric shock. Understandably the mice developed a severe fear of the smell. But what was really interesting was that their offspring, who had never been subjected to such shocks were born with fear of the smell of cherry blossoms. Other mice, born in the same environment, but whose parents were not subject to the shocking did not exhibit such fear.

This is important for us to keep in mind today, when we are faced with the mass culling of dogs. By going after dogs we are effectively making dogs wary of humans. The offspring of such dogs is likely to become more wary of humans and less friendly too. This is a situation that is likely to escalate and is potentially damaging to the harmony between humans and dogs.

Repeated studies on stray dogs or free ranging dogs has shown that their population will remain unchecked as long as garbage continues to pile high on our streets and animal birth control (ABC) is not effectively executed. To add to this, the above studies shows that the attempts to cull dogs can just make the future generation of dogs hostile towards humans.

On the contrary, examples in Jaipur and Istanbul unequivocally demonstrate that there is a very effective and peaceful solution to the perceived problem – ABC, nutrition and healthcare.
ABC addresses the first part of the problem. It keeps the dog population stable. This not only limits the number of dogs, it also leaves us with familiar dogs to deal with. Dogs stick to known territories and keep unknown dogs out of their territory. The more familiar we are with the dogs, the easier it gets to deal with them.

Food is the next part of the plan. Certain foods are heavy sources of an amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan is converted into a chemical called serotonin which gives a feeling of wellbeing in humans as well as dogs. After a heavy meal, rich in tryptophan, one is hardly in a mood to fight. Aggression is rarely seen in dogs after such heavy meals. A tryptophan heavy meal would consist of basic chicken and rice.
Finally, an unhealthy dog will be irritable and exhibit behavioural problems. So it comes down to dog lovers to notice the friendly neighborhood street dog’s ailments and get the necessary medical attention to avoid misdirected aggression.

A few animal welfare organisations will help in transporting dogs to vets. The dog-lover network online is also strong enough in Bengaluru to lend a helping hand. If one wants to take charge and address the issue, the support system in Bangalore is strong enough to make it happen.

References
http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/aug/21/study-of-holocaust-survivors-finds-trauma-passed-on-to-childrens-genes

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