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How Our Genes Change Our Lives, and Our Lives Change Our Genes

By Sharon Moalem, MD
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Inheritance by Sharon Moalem, MD

Inheritance (2014) is proof that you don’t need to be a scientist to understand the importance of your genetics. These blinks explain how your DNA affects your everyday life, from how you look and what you eat to how susceptible you are to things like anxiety and disease. So arm yourself with knowledge, and discover more about the genes that make you who you are.

Key idea 1 of 8

A person’s looks tell us about her genes and a person’s genes give some indication of her looks.

If you meet someone attractive, complimenting his or her genetics probably won’t make the best first impression. But if you have an eye for detail, you can determine a good amount of genetic information just by looking at someone.

The human eyes alone offer information on a number of genetic conditions.

One genetic condition related to the eyes is called Fanconi anemia, which results in a person having eyes that are extremely close together. Such people are also more likely to suffer from seizures. (But let’s not get too cocky with our genetic detective work: If we were to isolate what influences the amount of spacing between the eyes, we would still be looking at over four hundred genetic combinations.)

The shape of a person’s eyes can also hint at genetic conditions. One of the common signs of Down syndrome is that it places the outer corner of a person’s eyes in a higher position than the inner corner.

Genetics also affects the color of your eyes, and sometimes this can result in color pigments getting an uneven distribution. Other times it can result in heterochromia, a genetic condition that gives someone one eye that is a different color than the other. The actress Demi Moore has this condition: her left eye is green, her right eye is hazel.

Since the link between genetics and appearance is a two-way street, it works the other way around as well: knowledge about someone’s DNA can help you determine a good deal about how they look.

A great example of this is the case of Ötzi, the Stone Age man: In 1991, a mummy over five thousand years old was discovered in northern Italy’s Ötztal Alps.

By analyzing just one piece of the mummy’s left hip, scientists could determine that Ötzi was likely a light-skinned man with brown eyes and an ancestor of today’s Corsicans. But that’s not all. They could also surmise that Ötzi was lactose intolerant, had type O blood and was at high risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.

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