Most gossiped about genetic news of 2018
Sharing DNA, social media style
For a third year in a row, we are recounting the most shared genetic stories on social media so this has become our tradition to start the year. It is a collection of stories where the only metric we look at is the number of shares on stories about anything related to DNA. These can range from totally absurd, to very fascinating pieces of content that we would otherwise never come across if it wasn’t for this yearly review. Last year’s rendition of the most shared DNA stories of 2017 was more centered on the credible spectrum of information. So what did 2018 hold in store for us, and what were the most gossiped about genetic news pieces of 2018? In the top place, with over 2.1 million shares, was a story that already topped the list in 2017 but with far fewer shares that year: the genetic prowess of redheads! It is a rehash of the same story, which was a review of interesting, supposedly scientific, facts about redheads, compiled into a book dedicated to the topic. It was the same book with the same information, but tweaked enough to garner far more shares than in the previous year! In fact, this many shares equates with the most shared DNA story of 2016, and currently stands as the most popular story we covered!
Redheads our genetic superheroes
Just like last year, more than one article covering the topic of redheads made our top list, and the second-most shared story was all about that same topic. It was even almost a word-for-word rewrite! Perhaps creating great advertising for that book? This one tallied 550K shares, and went even further with touting the genetic superiority of redheads, calling them “genetic superheros”!
What are these superpowers?
Between the two articles, there were declarations that redheads were better at handling physical pain, about 25% more than your average female, that they were more sensitive to temperatures, and require less vitamin D. The authors should have read our post from last year: they would have also learned about the ability to make ambergris smell good in that mix!
2018 thus belonged to redheads!
Ancestral DNA stereotypes
In third place, boasting 273K shares, is where it gets really interesting!
This piece concerned the genome sequencing (decoding the entire human DNA), of a human sample from a 11,500-year-old burial place in Alaska which confirmed a branch of a European ancestry. This account was certainly dramatized with a provocative title that stated original Native Americans were “white”, because it was not as if all Europeans were white skinned! But this was even echoed by the principal investigator involved, Dr. Eske Willerslev, who apparently called the group of people in question “the white Native American”. Talk about assumptions! And in the end, the article concluded that nobody could really provide a definitive answer yet. But it is good to know that scientists also know how to market themselves. The take-home message is that the DNA represented a unique mix of genetics of future Native Americans (from both continents), and of Eurasian ancestry, representing a genetically distinct group of people named Beringians, after the name of the landmass that used to connect the Asian and North American continents.
Such genetic preoccupation with ancestry really dominated the social media channels, and in the most ironic twist of fate, the fourth most shared article, coming in at 271K shares, was an article on how the ancient Britons had black skin! So much for the all Europeans were white assumption! Once again, a full genome DNA analysis of a fossil dating back more than 10,000 years, apparently around the time when Britain was first being populated, indicated the person could have had blue eyes, but was dark or black-skinned with black curly hair. In turn, this might suggest that the light skin tone might have become the norm much later than is currently thought. Oh, and if you wanted to know, this time the now missing land-bridge between Britain and the rest of Europe is called Doggerland. Doggerlanders anyone?
Genetic political circus
In fifth place was one of those hilarious news moments of last year when Senator Elizabeth Warren, dubbed “Pocahontas” by President Trump, took the ancestry DNA test to prove her Native American heritage, only to be subsequently ridiculed for being less so than an average white person! To add further insult to the situation, this article, clocking 239K shares, is about the Cherokee Nation responding to DNA testing by Senator Warren, also ridiculing her attempts of proving ancestral indigenous belonging, calling such steps “inappropriate and wrong”. Senator Warren really should have done better homework prior to publicizing her results and attempting to embarrass President Trump, who said that he would pay up a million dollars if she could prove her heritage with the test. Apparently, current DNA tests do not even distinguish between the ancestry of South or North America!
President Trump also did not come out unscathed, denying his well-documented statements on financial reward to Senator Warren for the DNA test proof financial reward to Senator Warren for the DNA test proof. You couldn’t find a more awkward example of flip-flopping ever. Which by the way, was the topic of another widely-shared article that garnered 220K shares itself! Then, at nearly 207K, was another article from CNN about Trump dismissing Warren’s DNA test. At nearly 197K shares was the actual announcement of Warren’s DNA test results, with past access to the results that is no longer available. So the shaming political spat between two opponents took much interest in the public eye.
Every year there has to be some outlandish story where the DNA is used as some evidence to make preposterous claims. This time it was assertions that a man cut off his wife’s head after finding out through DNA testing that six of their kids were not parented by him. That link was shared 233K times and it no longer even exists! But looking through Google, this story seems to have been bouncing around for few years, and could just be a fishing scam. But with a mind-blowing impact!
DNA and the final frontier
Finally, at 206K shares, was one of those inflated stories because of a poor understanding of science. NASA did gene expression studies on an astronaut, Scott Kelly, who had spent substantial time in space, only to show that it was no longer the same as that of his counterpart twin brother on earth.
This is nothing remarkable in that itself, as everyone’s genes will start being used slightly differently as you change your environment, or you alter how you live, even if you are still in the same environment. So if you change your diet, your genes will respond. If you change your lifestyle and decide to do some activity regularly, your genes will respond. If you move next door from where you live, likely your genes will also respond to some degree. Even if you paint the walls in your living room a different color, perhaps your genes will also show a change in their use. The point is that gene expression (or how they are used in your body), is very elastic and responsive even to the smallest changes in the environment.
Thus, changing your surrounding in such a dramatic fashion as going from the Earth to space for a whole year, yes, it should have been no surprise that alterations in DNA use will take place. Then comparing it to a twin is even weirder, as that is already different person, and even though they might have had identical DNA on account of being identical twins, their DNA use never has to be the same as they are two independent individuals who interact with the outside world in different ways, which should result in different use of their DNA. The twin comparison might have provided clues of gene expression on Earth versus space at the same time frame at least.
In turn, most people understood that it was the actual DNA of Kelly that was changed, and inaccurately dramatized this event. Even Kelly seemed to fall victim to this misunderstanding, purportedly saying: “What? My DNA changed by 7%! I no longer have to call [Mark Kelly] my identical brother”
What? My DNA changed by 7%! Who knew? I just learned about it in this article. This could be good news! I no longer have to call @ShuttleCDRKelly my identical twin brother anymore. https://t.co/6idMFtu7l5— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) March 10, 2018
Instead, what that 7% change we are talking about is not in the DNA but in the DNA use. Some chemical modification on top of the individual’s DNA can take place, but that is without the alteration of the DNA code itself: this is referred to as “epigenetic changes”. But that is not what this article was talking about. It refers to the changes in expression that did not return to the baseline of what was seen before the space stunt, even after multiple months back on earth. It is not clear from the article how the use of twins helped to measure that precisely. It can also be noted that it could not be proven if such an alteration is actually due to the long-term effect of spending time in space, or due to returning to a different environment than Kelly started from. So essentially it became a gross misunderstanding and misuse of the NASA information.
Here are your top ten most shared articles on social media in 2018. There was not as much variety as previous years, and contained no articles on genetic diseases. With DNA sequencing playing such a central role in comparing the differences between individuals or different species throughout the timespan of many years, the process of discovery of our past history shall likely continue for many years to come.
Now let us see what great genetic information 2019 will bring us!
Happy New Year and happy genome sequencing!
This article has been produced by Merogenomics Inc. and edited by Kerri Bryant. Reproduction and reuse of any portion of this content requires Merogenomics Inc. permission and source acknowledgment. It is your responsibility to obtain additional permissions from the third party owners that might be cited by Merogenomics Inc. Merogenomics Inc. disclaims any responsibility for any use you make of content owned by third parties without their permission.
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