Finding the Perfect Genes?

Despite a plethora of the “Men Are From Mars…” type of self-help books, many people still think that the differences between men and women are unfathomable. Others think of the differences in terms of broad stereotypes, i.e. women are more nurturing and men are more aggressive.

So it was with great interest that we read some new research that could drastically alter the way we think about what drives us to be who we are.  It turns out that male or female behaviors are regulated by very specific genes that can be turned on and off at will.

The research, which was conducted by scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, aimed to locate those genes that are influenced by the sex hormones- testosterone and estrogen– and that dictate male and female behaviors.

The research team, led by Dr. Nirao Shah, managed to locate 16 genes that were expressed differently in male and female mice and showed that the different expressions were regulated by the sex hormones. They found that they could isolate parts of classic male and female behaviors and pinpoint them as being governed by their own particular genes. They also noticed that each gene regulates a few components of a behavior without affecting other aspects of male and female behavior.

In other words, by flipping the switch, they could turn off a mouse’s sex drive, willingness to spend time with their young, and even their desire to pick fights while leaving every other behavioral element unaffected.

Imagine how crazy it would be if we could do that in humans.

Don’t like that your boyfriend gets into fights or that your girlfriend has “yet another headache?”  Simple…just flip the switch!

Fortunately, there are more serious applications of this research. Understanding the genes that drive male and female behavior could, for example, guide researchers to locate which genes are involved in diseases such as autism, which affects four times as many males as it does females.

As good as all that sounds, there is something a bit unnerving about contemplating your genes as a collection of switches that govern your behaviors. On some level it would be a dream to be able to turn behaviors off and on at will. While it would revolutionize the way we interact, it could also change our conception of what makes us who we are. Fortunately, manipulating them is a complicated process. So it looks like we’ll have to wait a while before we start popping pills to fine tune ourselves.

That’s a relief, because for most of us, managing the hormones we already have is a big enough job!