Monday, 13 August 2018

Changing our appearance

Modern Biology is dominated by molecular approaches and, especially, the role of genes in evolution and in medicine. In contrast, my degree studies in Zoology in the 1960s were based on the structure and function of a wide range of whole organisms. However, we were introduced to the importance of genes and the way that they interact with the environment (whether within a single cell, within an individual, or outside an individual) through the phenotype (the appearance created by gene expression). We learned that changes in the genotype (the whole genetic makeup, also called the genome) that occurred by chance mutations resulted in changes in the phenotype and that a changing environment allowed the selection of different phenotypes (and thus genotypes) that would be favoured. It is the process of natural selection that Darwin propounded, with the addition of an explanation based on genetics. In the natural world, the process whereby a genetic mutation results in a successful phenotype may take thousands of years to spread through a population: much less in primitive organisms with short, or very short, life cycles.

It was a relationship that always stuck in my mind, although it had little influence on my research and teaching. Some of my research collaborators worked on phenotypic plasticity (different environmental conditions allowing the expression of different parts of the same genotype), so I had that idea, and could see how it applied to animals such as the arctic hare and the ptarmigan that change the colour of their coat/plumage from summer to winter as their environment changed from multicoloured to white. This is clearly under genetic control and requires changes in the physiology of each animal, driven by the influence of environmental cues. There are many more examples in the natural world.

The genotype-phenotype-environment relationship is of great interest to humans, although we may not know of it as such. While recognising that we are created by our genes, it is our phenotype that most interests us in Western countries - the way we look. Of course, we add to that by changing our external appearance frequently (unlike arctic hares and ptarmigans) by using clothes and other coverings. Much attention is given to the hair that grows on parts of our bodies and, recently, on body ornamentation in the form of tattoos. However, it is our shape, and the appearance of different body parts, that most affects us, as these are not easily changed in hours.

Unfortunately, not everyone is satisfied by their body and surgical procedures are used to change our phenotype. These include face lifts, breast enlargement or reduction, hair transplants, modifying parts of the face (like cheek bones and noses), and many others. Cosmetic surgery is invaluable after accidents or major illness, but the modification of appearance for vanity is narcissistic; yet so important to those that spend large sums of money on these procedures. Recently, a contestant on Love Island, a reality TV show in the UK, admitted to having extensive cosmetic interventions on various parts of her body; the cost being estimated at £25,000. She stated “I didn’t take all the decisions (about the operations, fillers, etc.) because I was trying to be a role model. I did it for me and no-one else.” [1]. In the article (see above) she didn’t explain why the results of the procedures made her feel better. The legendary Jocelyn Wildenstein probably spent a lot more on her surgical enhancement (see below) and she has stated that she is very pleased with the results, as she always wanted to look like a large cat. I have no idea whether she knows that others find her appearance monstrous.

In medicine, we are now looking to alter genotypes to prevent serious illnesses, or as a means of treating existing ones, with the exciting development of pharmacogenetics allowing drug treatments that are tailored to individuals. Very large sums of money, and much effort, go into this and the results in a few areas are highly promising. I wonder how long it will be before changing our genotype becomes an acceptable way of altering our phenotype and thus the way we look? It is unlikely to be soon, as so many genes are involved, and it may only be effective during early development, when adult features are beginning to form. Designer babies anyone?

At the opposite end of the age spectrum, we are also investing heavily in studies of ageing. Genetic engineering based on the results of these studies could promote an appearance of agelessness; replacing the cosmetics and cosmetic procedures on which we spend so much money. Then, if we can reduce the appearances of ageing, can we genetically engineer individuals to not age and thus not die? Surely that will never happen?

So, what of the third factor in the genotype-phenotype-environment relationship? We are mostly concerned with our social environment and, through research, in the environment within individuals. Our progressive destruction of the natural environment, a factor in both mental and physical health, might make selection of the phenotypes from altered genotypes irrelevant. But then, our interest is in humans, and the superficiality of humans, above all else.

[1] The i 2nd August 2018

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