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'Gay genes', scientists and the media

18 October 2004
By Dr Jess Buxton
genetics editor, BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 280
'Gay genes' have been in the news again this week. An Italian team of researchers has attempted to explain how such genes could be passed on from one generation to the next. The answer, it seems, is that the female relatives of gay men tend to have more children than those of heterosexual men. And any gene that increases the number of offspring of either sex has an advantage, in evolutionary terms. So, indirectly, the study supports the notion that homosexuality has a biological basis, something that many scientists and gay activists have long argued.

Sexuality, like all aspects of human behaviour, is the result of complex interactions between many different biological, environmental and cultural factors. But when Dean Hamer first reported his studies into the genetics of homosexuality eleven years ago, some scientists and the media leapt upon the work as evidence for 'the gay gene'. Some commentators expressed fears that the day was fast approaching when parents would be able to select offspring on the basis of their sexual preferences. This was despite the fact that no gene had been identified, just a possible location for one, on the human X chromosome.

Six years later, it emerged that another group of scientists had failed to replicate Hamer's findings and, in 2004, it is clear that there will be no single 'gay gene'. The author of the latest study, Andrea Camperio-Ciani, stresses that his work backs up the scientific consensus that several different genes influence sexuality - probably including one on the X-chromosome - but also that other factors are involved. These could include influences such as birth order, as well as life experiences. Camperio-Ciani estimates that his study accounts for just 20 per cent of the likelihood that a man will be homosexual, so being gay is clearly not all about genes.

Those who fear that we live in an increasingly 'geno-centric' society, with media coverage of human genetics dominated by simplistic explanations of 'the gene for...' variety, should have been pleasantly surprised by the coverage of this latest study. Although most reports were accompanied by images of homosexual pop star George Michael, nearly all did a good job of conveying the complexities of research in this area. In particular, Mark Henderson of the Times (see Recommends) gave a clear explanation of why such work will not lead to designer babies selected on the basis of sexuality, and concluded that 'variety is all part of normal human diversity'.

Like many multifactorial traits, research into human behaviour is technically challenging, but it also raises ethical issues that do not arise from other areas of genetic research. There are fears that such knowledge could theoretically be used to select for certain 'types' of people, a concern highlighted by a Nuffield Council on Bioethics report on the subject published two years ago. However, the more we find out about human genes and the way they interact with other factors, the less realistic these scenarios appear to be. It seems that the media, and therefore the public, might at last be getting the message that we are far more than the sum of our genes.

12 October 2015 - by Dr Ashley Cartwright 
Researchers in the USA have developed an epigenetic test which they claim can predict whether a man is gay or straight with 67 percent accuracy...
17 February 2014 - by Chris Hardy 
Genetics plays a role in male sexual orientation but social and environmental factors are also involved, research suggests...
17 December 2012 - by Dr Nicola Davis 
Homosexuality is inherited, not through genes, but through 'epi-markers', a study based around mathematical modelling suggests...
12 July 2010 - by Dr Nadeem Shaikh 
In August, the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism will publish an article on a consensus reached by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the European Society for Paediatric Endocrinology and many others, regarding the use of dexamethasone (dex), a steroid used to treat a genetic condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), which can affect one in 15,000 babies...
6 June 2005 - by BioNews 
Tweaking a single gene alters the courtship behaviour of fruit flies, a new Austrian study shows. By altering a gene called 'fruitless' (fru), the researchers, based at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna, bred female flies that courted other females. But altering the same gene in male flies produced...
13 October 2004 - by BioNews 
Genetic factors that influence homosexuality in men might also affect the number of children borne by their female relatives, Italian scientists claim. A new survey suggests that although gay men may have fewer children than heterosexual men, their mothers and maternal aunts have more children than those of men who...
7 October 2002 - by Juliet Tizzard 
This week saw the publication of a new and much anticipated report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics on the ethical issues arising from research into behavioural genetics. The report, entitled 'Genetics and human behaviour: the ethical context', is a weighty publication, the result of 18 months of fact finding...
26 April 1999 - by BioNews 
A study investigating the genetic basis of homosexuality has failed to support research published six years ago suggesting the existence of a 'gay gene'. A team of scientists led by Dean Hamer, an American Aids researcher, caused controversy in 1993 when it published results of a study claiming to have...
26 April 1999 - by Juliet Tizzard 
It's official: there is no such thing as a gene for homosexuality. Well, sort of. A number of articles in last week's press reported on new research from the University of Western Ontario that failed to demonstrate a link between a gene on the X chromosome and homosexuality in men...
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