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Pinoy Kasi

Genetics, elections, ‘pinakbet’

/ 04:15 AM April 26, 2022

Yesterday was DNA day, mainly celebrated by scientists in the US to commemorate the publication, in 1953, of an article by four scientists, describing the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, the molecule that carries the genetic information for all living beings.

It was the description of DNA that unlocked many of the mysteries around heredity, and has opened the way to many important advances, including the monumental first map of the human genome in 2003, to the many applications of genetics in health care, agriculture, forensics, and many more fields.

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Way before the discovery of DNA’s structure, people had already figured out methods to choose desirable characteristics in plants and animals and propagate those features.

Ever seen a bougainvillea plant yielding different colors of flowers, as well as regular and variegated leaves?

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My late mother planted such bougainvillea in her garden, but I learned only recently that people have a term for these products of grafting: “mister and misis” bougainvillea! What I find most alluring are not just separate white and red bougainvillea flowers but those that produce a Leni pinkish shade.

But it is in life and death issues where genetics has rapidly entered Filipino consciousness. The Newborn Screening Act of 2004, shepherded by current UP Manila chancellor Carmencita Padilla, required testing of newborns for six congenital diseases, which has since been expanded to 28, covered by PhilHealth. The screening allows early interventions for congenital conditions, some of which can have serious consequences including early death.

The screening has led to a master’s course in UP Manila for genetic counseling, training people to advise families of children born with the congenital conditions, so they understand the conditions and the precautions they need to take, for example in diets and in the taking of medicines, as well as being conscious of the possibilities that condition will emerge again in future offspring.

Filipinos are also becoming more aware of the need to keep track of our family history of illnesses — how many close women relatives have had breast cancer, for example, or, with men, prostate problems.

Genetic counseling is important to explain genes are not destiny. We talk about predisposition, and of measures that can be taken to prevent or at least lessen the impact of a hereditary condition.

Older readers are aware of how, as we age, we find a “replay” of the illnesses our parents had, even as we appreciate how, through the years, advances have been made so that illnesses previously considered almost like a death sentence can now be controlled with maintenance medicines.

The advances around genetics have led to concerns as well about how genetics is used, of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food for example. Some of the fears are exaggerated, even concocted—I smile when I see labels like “non-GMO oatmeal” because there is, in fact, no GMO oatmeal.

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I’d worry more about pesticides in many of our foods than GMOs.

But as an anthropologist, what I fear most is the way genetics has been used to justify and even intensify racism and other forms of discrimination. Ironically, one of the scientists who unraveled DNA, James Watson, has come under heavy criticism, including being stripped of some of his honorary titles, because of his insistence that there is such a thing as “scientific racism,” using genetics to argue that some races have inferior intelligence, for example.

We, Filipinos, are obsessed with “racial accounting,” describing ourselves in totally unscientific percentages of American, Spanish, Chinese “blood” to suggest superiority.

Our perceptions of people are so often mangled by the physical expression of genes in skin color and other physical features, what is called the “phenotype.” Yet, scientific research has proven that in terms of the genotype, the actual genes, the differences within so-called races are actually larger than those between these “races.”

Then, too, with elections around the corner, we see a distortion of genetics when we think that electing the children of previous politicians can resurrect an often mythical or fictional golden era of fathers, or mothers, long gone.

May I get naughty with an Ilocano saying that says: “ti paria haan nga agbunga iti tarong” — an ampalaya plant does not produce eggplant.

Sure, but there are many variations on the ingredients for good pinakbet.

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TAGS: Elections, Genetics, Michael L. Tan, pinakbet, Pinoy Kasi
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