Gender Bending Flies: Searching for "Gay Genes"
Scientists suspect there may be so-called gay genes that influence sexual orientation in some way. But so far there have only been clues, no definitive answers. And this line of research is controversial, the topic polarizing. We begin our special DNA Files series on genetics this morning with a report about local scientists' efforts to find out what determines our sexuality, and what that means for the gay community. Chicago Public Radio's Lynette Kalsnes begins her report at a laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago where researchers made an unexpected discovery.
ambi: fruit fly
This is the pick-up line of a fruit fly.
The male vibrates his wing at one special lady, and hopes for the best.
It's a strange little hum.
Yet to the lady fruit fly, if it's Mr. Right who's making that noise, it may translate into something like this:
ambi: Barry White: "the first, my last, my everything…"
FEATHERSTONE: So he spots her, and then he'll approach her. It's kind of the equivalent for a human guy spotting a female, and saying, Oh, and getting close and smelling her perfume and then being so bold as to lick her.
ambi: Barry White: "My guiding star..."
Now UIC Professor Dave Featherstone doesn't normally study fruit flies and sex.
He actually studies how messages are transmitted in the brain.
And in one particular experiment, he decided to tinker with a gene he thought might be related to Lou Gehrig's disease.
And he did shed some light on that.
But science can be a lot like a surprise party.
A new post-doctoral student specializing in the courtship of fruit flies had just arrived at UIC to work in Featherstone's lab.
FEATHERSTONE: A few hours or maybe a day later, I can't remember, he pokes his head around the door of my office right there, and he says ‘Have you noticed that all the male flies in here are courting the other males?' And I said, ‘No, I hadn't noticed.'
It turns out, the scientists had discovered that by interfering with a specific gene, they could change the fly's sexual behavior.
When they broke that gene, male flies, which typically go after females, went after both males and females.
FEATHERSTONE: We wanted to give it a name based on that, but it had to be an accurate name, and genderblind turned out to be the accurate name.
Now other scientists have manipulated sexuality in fruit flies.
But this team took it one step further.
They found that in the mutant flies, they could turn bisexuality off and on like a light switch.
And they did it by giving the flies drugs that changed the level of a chemical messenger in the nervous system.
FEATHERSTONE: It's almost a little far-fetched, right? The control of circuitry and complex behavior is a really tough nut to crack.
The big question, as you might imagine, is whether a similar gene or chemical would function the same way in humans.
The answer to that is a long way off.
BAILEY: There's a limit to how much I think you'd want to take from the animal studies. Particularly of a very distant related species.
Northwestern University's Michael Bailey is one of the leading sex researchers in the country.
Bailey and fellow Northwestern Professor Alan Sanders are using genetic techniques to study 1-thousand pairs of gay brothers.
Sanders is leading the study.
SANDERS: So basically, we don't know how many genes influence this trait, although we're pretty convinced that it's not just one gene. Maybe it's 5 genes, maybe it's 10 genes, maybe it's 100 genes.
Sanders and Bailey hope their research will provide some answers about the role of genetics in male homosexuality. This is by far the largest study of its kind.
A few notes of caution, however.
Researchers are recruiting heavily at gay festivals, where people are out and proud. And that may not reflect the whole spectrum of homosexuality.
The scientists are studying brothers, so it's possible traits will show up that have more to do with being related and environmental factors, than being gay.
It also doesn't address female homosexuality.
But Daniel Smith, one of the gay brother's who's volunteered for the study, is still hoping for answers.
SMITH: I'm fairly confident that what comes of this will be what I've always felt for a long time. Who I am, who I love, who I desire has always been within me. The core can't change.
Smith's DNA will be scanned, and compared to other men in the study.
He hopes researchers do find gay genes – because he says it would take a lot of pressure off of young gays.
SMITH: You probably don't understand what's going on with you, and then you're made fun of because of that, on top of it, it's a terrible thing anyone has to go through. If I can stop that or at least slow it down a little bit, that would be great.
But there are plenty of gay men who view this sort of study with suspicion.
And Tim Murphy, a bioethicist, says for good reason.
He says being gay was considered a medical disorder until the 1970s.
Doctors had tried shock treatment and testicular implants to make people straight.
MURPHY: By and large the medical community made a gigantic mistake when it classified homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder. And I think we're still suffering from its effects to this day. I think a lot of gay men, a lot of lesbians, mistrust medicine for exactly that reason, because they don't believe that medicine has their interests at heart.
ambi: sound of parade
Hundreds of thousands gathered for this year's Chicago Gay Pride Parade.
Among them, Miss Phoenix, wearing glass platform heels, and wings of ostrich plumes 15 feet across
MISS PHOENIX: My deal with genetics, don't pick the way your baby is going to be born, pick it the way God meant it to be.
Miss Phoenix is concerned the research could lead to a genetic test for gayness, and some parents would abort their babies, or force treatment on their children.
MISS PHOENIX: My mom didn't have a choice in this. And I came out the way I am. And she's absolutely in love with me. She is my biggest fan at all my shows. She couldn't have gone to a doctor and asked for a better son, according to her.
ambi: Parade sound fades away
LABARBERA: I call myself a born-again Christian. I believe that all people are born with sinful inclinations that we actually have to resist in our lives.
Peter LaBarbera heads the conservative group called Americans for Truth About Homosexuality.
LaBarbera worries the discovery of a genetic trait for homosexuality would mean greater acceptance of gays… and that will lead to more same-sex marriages, and pro-gay employment laws.
LABARBERA: If there was something that came out, and there was a dramatic new study which says more than ever, there's proof of some sort of inborn causation to homosexuality, it would not stop people like myself from believing that homosexual behavior is immoral.
LaBarbera questions why researchers don't study whether people who are gay, can change.
ambi: lab sound
Back in his lab at UIC, Feather stone says scientists like himself are far from coming up with anything definitive on what makes people bisexual or gay.
The fruit fly research only told him that by adjusting a chemical, called glutamate, in flies, he could enhance a certain message.
FEATHERSTONE: That same message, mate with that guy, is suddenly, MATE WITH THAT GUY, and they do it.
ambi: Fruit fly sound
But Featherstone knows this project is controversial, as long as society remains divided about the standing of gay people.
FEATHERSTONE: It's not our job to decide how the knowledge is used, we've just got to figure it out. Actually, I don't want to be part of that debate. And I'm glad I'm not.
Scientific research at this point can only provide clues about whether there's a biological explanation for homosexuality.
Many people in the gay community are hoping it is biological.
What they're worried about is how the larger society will react.
They know the science here has the potential to be life changing.
I'm Lynette Kalsnes, Chicago Public Radio.