Will Your Phenotype Last Your Lifetime?

Kage Baker was an avid reader of magazine article titles.

That might sound a bit over-specialized, but when we were young you could actually find articles about general news topics in magazines – especially those in the checkout line at the grocery store. Nowadays, these are dominated by trashy celebrity-centric mags; who is wearing, eating or doing whom; who is crying their face-lifted eyes out over it; who is about to undergo a marital, gender or species change … but not when we were kids. Then, you could actually see things as diverse as Reader’s Digest Magazine and Scientific American right there by the gum and Life Savers.

Kage was always intrigued by titles like “Will Your (Organ of the Month) Last Your Lifetime?” and autobiographies like “I am Joe’s Thymus”. The latter cracked her up: she was inordinately amused by the literary conceit of assigning the first person singular viewpoint to an internal organ. Her list of complaints from Joe’s liver or kidneys or testicles was hilarious, as I recall … what amused her about the former series, though, was a common-sense observation. Yes, of course Joe’s vital organs will last a lifetime, because when they fail, he’ll die.

So obvious. And, to Kage, so blackly amusing.

Of course, the advances of modern medicine are making some changes in this scenario – prostheses, drugs, transplants: these all can extend one’s lifetime beyond the demise of one’s kidneys or pituitary. And as genetic information increases, we are also beginning to discover that what happens at the intersection of genotype and phenotype can undergo alterations during a lifetime. Some of these are so huge in consequence and meaning that they almost constitute metamorphosis.

Your genotype, Dear Readers, is of course your actual genes. I’m sure you know this – they’re the physical bits that program you to make all sorts of useful proteins, and that make you green-eyed or pigeon-toed or baritone or allergic to hazelnuts. Your phenotype is the way those instructions play out – which is why your eyes are a unique shade of green; or you are the first person in 10 generations of your family to have blonde hair; or you grow to be a foot taller than your parents, because improved nutrition allows you to express a hitherto-unused potential for long bones.

Genotypes work at different speeds, too. Your phenotype can, theoretically, begin displaying something unsuspected if you live long enough … and it’s rarely superpowers, alas.

Case in point: people die of different things these days than they used to.  They live longer, and the last dance is more likely to be with a strange disease for us than for our grandparents. People didn’t used to die of cancer as much as they do now, nor of Alzheimer’s nor of Parkinson’s. There are degenerative diseases that seldom got a chance to kill people, back when more people croaked it in their 20’s and 30’s. All life really promises any of us is a chance -just a chance, mind you – to breed before we die. If we live longer than breeding age, what eats us then is our own problem.

Kage herself died of a rare cancer; one not even known to exist in her own youth. Her oncologist could find only 27 cases of it in the literature, and most of the other women who developed it died, too. Something new. Something nasty. Something that Kage should have been spared by being run over by a horse or succumbing to quinsy or something old-fashioned like that. But the medical arts made it possible for her to survive a dozen things that would have killed her own mother or grandmother, and so live long enough for an unsuspected weakness in her genotype to manifest in her phenotype.

I guess it happens to most of us. If you’re paying attention, you notice. Not that does any good, but at least you know.

I’ve been famed all my life – and vain, too, I must admit – for being remarkably free of respiratory diseases. Despite smoking for decades, I didn’t catch colds or influenza. That has all changed in the last couple of years, and I resent it extremely. I’ve been suffering through bout after bout of some sort of lung and sinus crap since the week before Christmas, and I am tired of it!

I can’t take most decongestants, nor cough syrups. So I am now down to desperate folk remedies, like Mrs. Nickelby in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickelby, with her cold that lasts for 6 months … Kimberly has just begun supplying me with elderberry extracts, which is at least a harmless and potentially tasty palliative. My CPAP helps, now that I have my sinuses under sufficient control to stop sneezing into the mask – which is a horror show all its own, let me tell you. But this unending storm of sneezing, dripping, coughing, bleary misery is really getting me down!

It’s also Kimberly who nags me into posting a blog, Dear Readers; so we all have her to thank for my doing anything at all useful.

But it’s warmer here in LA than it has been lately; spring is coming, so maybe I will finally re-establish some respiratory parity. I am not impressed with the slow failure of my immune systems; and I’m not entertained by the new manifestations of my genetic heritage. It’s a pretty good bet that all my aging systems will, regardless of what happens, last my lifetime … for Kage’s favourite reason, if no other.

Aging is not a fun spectator sport. I suggest we all avert our gaze. And in the meantime, it’s time to proceed with life.