Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Delta 32

Medieval doctors wore bird-like masks to protect themselves from deadly vapors. Aromatic herbs were placed in the beak of the mask.

According to yesterday's news, the deadly strain of bird flu [H5N1] had been confirmed in a cat in northern Germany, "the first time the virus has been identified in a mammal in the 25 nations of the European union." I pondered what that news might mean as we dealt in my History and Thought of Western Man class with the Black Death.

We showed a PBS film, Secrets of the Dead: Mystery of the Black Death, which examines the mystery of why, when the Black Death came in 1665 to the English village of Eyam, half the people were able to survive. According to the film, with the first deaths, the villagers turned to their rector who suggested the entire town be quarantined. The surprise was that rather than everyone dying, at least half the people of the village survived.

To find an answer as to why they survived, scientists examined the DNA of descendants of the survivors and found that 14 percent possessed a recessive gene mutation called delta 32. Testing the distribution of this gene throughout the world, they discovered none in native Africans, East Asians nor Indians. Research established that the gene is only found in those regions of Europe where the Black Death hit and in America which is where some European descendants moved.

But that’s not all. Noting that the Black Death was a disease that attacked the immune system, researchers began wondering if there was a link with other immune diseases. Scientists looked at the case of Steven Crohn, an actively gay man whose partner was the fifth person to die of AIDS in America. Crohn did not contract the disease. Most of his friends died from AIDS, and he certainly was exposed to the virus. DNA tests showed he did indeed possess the mutant gene, which doesn’t allow the AIDS virus to attack the immune system. Surprisingly Crohn not only had not gotten the disease, he may never get it. And he may be among thousands who have the same immunity.

The gene has been around a long time. Researchers have discovered Scandinavian bodies pre-Black Death who possess the gene.

While the discovery of delta 32 offers tantalizing areas for researchers to study, it does point out how survival of Black Death or of AIDS may be the luck of the gene pool. Perhaps the same may be true with the pandemic predicted with bird flu.

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