Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: What’s in my traditional medecine?

Saiga antelope. Photo via Nothing in Biology Makes Sense.

This week at the collaborative blog Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, Sarah Hird explains how to identify the ingredients in traditional Chinese medecines—with a whole pile of sequence data.

[Coghlan et al.] target one animal and one plant marker and “genetically audit” the samples by sequencing the heck out of them using a bench-top HTS, the Roche GS Junior. Their protocol produced 49,000 sequence fragments. They then compare their sequences to large databases containing sequences of known origin and thus, identify what’s in the TCM.

To learn what the group found, go read the whole thing.◼

Why aren’t there more sickle-cell anemics in the Mediterranean?

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgThe story of sickle-cell anemia and its malaria-protective effects is a textbook case how environmental context determines the fitness of a given genetic profile. However, the evolution of human blood disorders in response to selection from malaria parasites might be more complicated than that textbook story.

Malaria-causing parasites (dark-stained) among human red blood cells (top), and “sickled” red blood cells (bottom). Photos via WikiMedia Commons.

Malaria is caused by mosquito-spread parasites that attack their hosts’ oxygen-bearing red blood cells. A particular mutation in the gene that codes for part of the hemoglobin molecule – the molecule that actually stores oxygen inside red blood cells – leads to deformed, sickle-shaped, blood cells. People who carry two copies of the sickle cell gene develop sickle-cell disease, in which the sickle-shaped cells reduce oxygen transport efficiency and interfere with blood circulation. People with only one copy of the sickle-cell gene are healthy, and better able to resist malaria infection than those with no copies. The textbook story is that, in regions where malaria is common, such as sub-Saharan Africa, the advantage of malaria resistance is enough to offset the fitness risk of carrying the sickle-cell gene – that one-fourth of children born to parents who each have one copy of the gene will themselves have two copies and develop sickle-cell disease.

However, there are regions like the Mediterranean where malaria has historically been prevalent, but in which the human population hasn’t evolved the higher frequency of sickle-cell genes that you’d expect from the scenario outlined above. A new paper in PNAS demonstrates that this may be because of interactions between the sickle-cell gene and another genetic blood disorder, thalassemia [$a].

Thalassemia is a class of genetic disorders affecting the protein subunits that comprise hemoglobin. Each hemoglobin molecule is formed by binding together two “alpha”-type subunits, and two “beta”-type subunits. If there is a shortage of correctly-formed subunits of either type, then hemoglobin formation is impaired, resulting in anemia or (if the mutation stops subunit production altogether) death. However, like sickle-cell genes, thalassemic mutations can confer resistance to malaria; and if alpha-thalassemia is paired with beta-thalassemia, the reduced production of both subunits can balance out.

As it happens, in combination with alpha-thalassemia, the sickle-cell gene’s malaria protection is neutralized. Using population genetic models, the new study’s authors show that this effect may have actively prevented the sickle-cell gene from establishing in the Mediterranean, where alpha- and beta-thalassemias are more common than in Africa. In the Mediterranean, the presence of beta-thalassemia genes reduces the fitness cost of (mild) alpha-thalassemia genes; and in the presence of alpha-thalassemia genes, the sickle-cell gene confers no protection to people with one copy but still induces sickle-cell disease in people with two copies.

These interactions between genes are called epistasis, and they can have dramatic impacts on evolution. Although I haven’t seen many cases as well-characterized as this one, epistasis is probably widespread in the complex systems of genomes, where thousands of regulatory and protein-coding genes interact to build living things.


Penman, B., Pybus, O., Weatherall, D., & Gupta, S. (2009). Epistatic interactions between genetic disorders of hemoglobin can explain why the sickle-cell gene is uncommon in the Mediterranean Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA, 106 (50), 21242-6 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0910840106