Sunday, February 2, 2014

Mormonism and Biology - A Likely Alliance

Genetic research has been a tremendous boon to science and medicine over the last several decades. It has allowed us to pinpoint exact genetic causes of diseases that for hundreds or thousands of years had been mysteries to science. It has allowed us to develop drugs that improve, save, and prolong life around the world. Genetic research has allowed us to map the human genome, predict dangerous tumors a long way off, and is even beginning to allow us to show a genetic basis for many important personality traits.

But in order to do genetic research, you need to get quite a few things right. It's very technology intensive, and it's almost like putting together a puzzle. If you remember from high school biology, recessive genes will hide themselves in a person's genome, only manifesting themselves once every several generations. It's like sleuthing out a mystery, where the culprit can hide himself for generations.

The Mormon Church and Mormon culture in Utah have been a tremendous boon to the process of human genetic research. Why? Mormons' culture and theology have given them most of the puzzle pieces, allowing one university researcher to proudly declare that “more human disease genes have been discovered in Utah than in any other place in the world.”
  • Mormons place a huge emphasis on family history research, and that is the first piece of the puzzle. If you track down one person who has a strange disease, you might be able – with a lot of work, and some blind luck – to determine the individual gene or set of genes that leads to it. But your chances for success are greatly multiplied if you can find their brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, first and second and fifth cousins. Once you've found a family, you can see if any of their relatives have the same disease, and if they do, you're in luck: you can test them for the gene or group of genes that you think is responsible for the disease, and if they all have it, you've made a discovery! And if not,
    The LDS Church's Family History Library - over
    8 billion records are housed in this building.
    you know you have to go back to the drawing board.
    Mormons literally see family history work as their God-given duty, and have traced back family trees that stretch back sometimes four and five hundred years, complete with aunts, uncles, cousins, and multiple-wives. The Church's Family History Library, in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, has more than 8 billion names in it: that's more names than there are people alive today!
  • Mormons have huge families. Recessive genes aren't manifested in every generation – and the genetic diseases that these researchers are looking for are overwhelmingly recessive. You need a big family tree to find some of these genes in families, and the bigger, the better. Basically, if you double the size of the family, you double the chances that the gene you are looking for will pop up. Also, Mormon families, which typically end in divorce less often, have fewer step- or half- relatives, which keeps things nice and simple for researchers. (As an aside, not even the widespread practice of polygamy in Mormon circles – leading to half-families – is slowing things down too much. Only about 30 percent of Utah families were polygamous, even at polygamy's height.)
  • Mormons live clean, homogenous lifestyles. Being a card-carrying Mormon means no alcohol, no tobacco, and no drugs. Also, they typically eat pretty similar diets, and lead pretty similar lifestyles. This helps geneticists understand more easily when a disease is caused by genetic factors, and when it is caused by environmental factors. In other, more scientific terms, it helps them control for environmental factors in determining the effects of genetics on diseases.
  • The spread of a cancer genetic mutation that
    was tracked with the help of Mormon family history.
    Mormons are also genetically more homogeneous than other groups of people. Ok, laugh if you want about Mormons in Utah being just a bunch of white guys – it's actually statistically pretty true. In fact, most Mormons can trace their ancestry to one of just a handful of Western European countries. But when it comes to doing genetics research, that's a great boon, because it allows researchers to control for many more genetic factors. When they're obtaining massive samples of people who all came from a relatively small gene pool, progress can multiply.
  • Mormons cooperate with the geneticists. None of this would mean anything if Mormons were uncooperative or guarded, and the researchers couldn't make progress on a social front. But quite the opposite is true. At family reunions, sometimes with thousands of people, geneticists have been known to set up booths to ask for blood samples, and have family members “eagerly sign consent forms and give blood samples.” Likewise, they are cooperative with geneticists who ask for family history records. Since at least the 1970's, the LDS Family History Library has contributed extensively to genetic research, forming the backbone of what is called the “Utah Population Database,” a Big-Data database of 7.3 million individuals who were born, married, or died in Utah.

  • A family history tree showing the
    incidence of a recessive genetic disease.
    In Utah, science doesn't merely exist. It prospers.” Mormons understand the importance of science, and have put significant amounts of time and money into genetics, usually indirectly, but sometimes directly as well. Dr. John Kauwe, of LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, has been doing some very significant research on genetics and its role in Alzheimer's disease. In recent years, he's gone to Cache Valley, Utah, where they've found a specific gene which may slow Alzheimer's disease from progressing. Because of extensive family history research, Dr. Kauwe and his team were able to narrow their focus to a very specific set of just a few families living in Cache Valley, instead of having to test large segments of the population for the gene. Since then, he has succeeded in identifying a gene – a variant of the TREM 2 gene – which increases a person's risk of Alzheimer's between two and six times.(Source) To pinpoint that exact gene, he and his colleagues had to sift through 5 terabytes - 5,000 gigabytes - of genetic information. Even though it doesn't say so in the article, you can take it to the bank that a tremendous amount of that information was from Utah natives.
I know that a lot has been said recently about science and religion not getting along. Nowadays, the world's loudest atheist is a biologist by profession, and you'd think that they won't ever make nice between each other. But the way I see it, Mormonism and biology are already getting along great, if only so far in a practical sense. In the real world, where the rubber hits the road, the world of big-data bioinformatics and the world of LDS culture are coming together and complementing each other. It was, in hindsight, quite a likely alliance.

(Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are taken from, a website I highly recommend for anyone seeking to learn more. All information on this blog posting has come either from websites already cited, my own personal experiences, and/or personal discussions with my biology professor, Dr. Richard Gill, at BYU.)