Are we born this way?

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The  continued search for the ‘Gay Gene’ yields new exciting developments

A recent discovery in research on homosexuality sheds lights on a new angle on the topic. This highly sensitive subject of what causes sexual orientation has fascinated us for a long time. The debate has always been a nature versus nurture one, where the importance of science was highly contentious.

Researchers that came together from numerous US institutes have now found new evidence in the debate studying two male twins. Their findings were presented at the American Society of Human Genetics on the 8th of October.

Less than 40 years ago, homosexuality was removed from the list of recognised mental disorders. It is only in this century that society and pop-culture have been able to handle the topic so openly. Research on homosexuality on the other hand has been around for over 100 years and was not always rosy. Extreme examples are Nazi experiments trying to prove gays as perversions of humanity.

Biological research on homosexuality is therefore a highly sensitive topic not only with the LGBT community but also with conservative thinkers who believe homosexuality is something that can be ‘cured’.

For a long time what is referred to as ‘gay genes’, which, along with environmental factors, has been a main influence in research into sexuality. The theory is however widely contested and not thoroughly proven. Ascribing a single characteristic to a single gene is a reductive biological approach. Gene Wide Association Studies have failed to pick up a correlation between certain DNA sequences and sexuality. Twin studies further contradicted the gene theory since the identical male twin of a gay man, despite having the same genome only has a 20 to 50 per cent chance of being gay himself.

Epigenetics is a study in the field of genetics that describes heritable changes in genes not involving underlying changes to the DNA sequence.  During development, chromosomes can be exposed to chemical changes called epi-marks. These epi-marks normally result from the addition of a methyl group to a DNA base. While most of these marks are erased when eggs and sperm are produced, it has been found that some marks can be passed on to the next generation.

The researchers suggest that these epi-marks that can lead to homosexuality. The marks were clustered around certain regularatory regions of genes affecting neuronal transport and protein transcription. They suggest these changes could lead to the brains of girls being ‘masculinized’ while boys are ‘feminized’ which can result in same sex attraction. The researchers tested 37 monozygotic (identical) male twin pairs of different sexual orientation to find results to great accuracy supporting their hypothesis.

The team lead by UCLA’s Eric Vilain has expressed concern about misuse of their findings in order to conduct testing for homosexuality or some sort of ‘cure’ by extreme opponents. Another researcher Bailey plays down such implications pointing out that ‘we will not have the potential to manipulate sexual orientation anytime soon’.

While it is true that science should not have to be restricted by the possibility of such misconduct, it is important to keep moral implications in mind when it comes to such highly controversial topics. Radical homophobes are not hidden, but are in plain sight, and are heard loud and clear all over American politics, to state only one example.  

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Emilia Pilss is Publicity & Distribution Officer at bathimpact (2015/16). She writes about international politics.

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