Thursday, December 16, 2010

Rock star genetics: the 27GP

Posted by Nathaniel Comfort on 12/16 at 10:17 AM

I’ve wondered about it for decades. Sitting in someone’s room, some guitar god blasting on the stereo, the shag carpet littered with vinyl records and bright cardboard sleeves...and, um, other...paraphernalia...inevitably someone would point out the spooky correlation.

Did you ever notice how many musicians died at age 27? Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones of the Stones, the Dead’s Ron “Pigpen” McKernan—all in a two-year period between July, 1969 and July, 1971. It seemed uncanny to us, especially after a few beers and with “Ball and Chain” cranked up to 11. And then, years later, one of very few musicians to rank in that echelon, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana died, an apparent suicide. How old was he? Yep, 27. Wikipedia lists 41 musicians who died at age 27. Coincidence?

Yea okay, maybe. The New Yorker this week has a fascinating article by Jonah Lehrer about the “decline” effect in science and the way initial positive results have a disconcerting way of becoming unrepeatable and fading into the great cosmic amp feedback of randomness.

But where’s the fun in that?

Rather, consider that Ozzy Osborne, lead singer and batbiter for Black Sabbath is sequencing his own genome. Joining the fad for recreational genomics, brought about by direct-to-consumer companies like 23andMe and
“ title="Prometheus">Prometheus, Ozzy will sacrifice a few cheek cells and send them off to a modern-day haruspex. A technician will spread the Ozman’s cellular entrails, returning to him misty glimpses of his past and future, in the form of a computer printout of his genetic predispositions. Considering the amount of drugs he’s done, Osborne said, “there’s really no plausible medical reason why I should still be alive. Maybe my DNA could say why.” It ought to make great reality TV.

Consider further that Henry Rollins, the frontman for the aggressive San Francisco punk band Black Flag, is also having his genes tested. He wants to know whether his aggressive tendencies stem from a copy of the “warrior gene” lurking in a dark back alley of his chromosomes. “Ultimately, I’d rather feel like I’m a product of the things I experienced than of some annoying gene,” Rollins said. But perhaps the annoying gene is linked to the warrior gene; anyway, he’s going to find out.

Seems to me we have a golden opportunity here. Ever since we “got” the human genome at the turn of the century, various boutique genome projects have blossomed. First there were the various “omes”: the proteome (a catalogue of all the genes that make proteins), metabolome (just the proteins involved in metabolism), and transcriptome (RNA transcripts). Quickly a whole science sprung up around this kind of thing, complete with a flagship journal that has perhaps the silliest name in the biomedical sciences: Omics. Then there were genome projects devoted to particular diseases, such as the cancer genome project and organ systems, such as the immunological genome project. The idea is taking off: Mark Walker, a philosopher at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, is trying to raise support for a Genetic Virtue Project, an effort to find all the genes related to qualities of human virtue.

You see where I’m headed. We need a 27 Club Genome Project. My colleague Darin Hayton wrote recently about the effort to exhume and biologically sample the great astronomer Tycho Brahe. If it’s good enough for Tycho, it’s good enough for Jimi, Jim, and Janis. Let’s dig up all 41 members of the 27 Club, biopsy them, and do the experiment.

The 27GP, which will characterize the crashandburnalome, will be a catalogue of the Single-Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) shared by these musicians who also share the qualities of achieving some degree of fame or notoriety in popular music and dying at age 27. The sample controls fairly well for type of death—it includes all categories of rock-musician mortality: vehicular accident, drug overdose, suicide, and probable murder. It draws from multiple racial haplotypes (well, Jimi was black) and gender (Janis and several others). And of course it’s beautifully age-controlled.

Dude, we should totally do it. The 27GP is likely to teach us all sorts of valuable things about the biological basis of creativity, its relationship to thrill-seeking behavior and mental conditions such as depression, non-congenital hearing loss, and of course individual differences in drug metabolism. It could lead to new, um, pharmaceutical treatments and quite possibly gene therapy. Perhaps someday we will be able, through techniques such as prenatal genetic diagnosis and selective abortion, to uncouple musical creativity from self-destructive impulses.

We’ve got to find our way back to the Garden.

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Comment posted by Joanna Radin on 12/16 at 01:20 PM

crashandburnalome!  brilliant!

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