Abraham Lincoln’s DNA and Other Adventures in Genetics by Philip R Reilly

By Philip R Reilly

Twenty-four precise, wide-ranging stories of crime, heritage, human habit, disease, and ethics, advised from the private point of view of the writer, an eminent physician-lawyer who makes use of the tales to demonstrate the rules of human genetics. Philip Reilly makes use of those tales to demonstrate the rules of human genetics and to debate the wider concerns.

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There is, of course, no single gene that governs whether one is capable of becoming a talented painter. But Henri was drawing well without benefit of a tutor by age 3. As an adult, his art is all the more impressive given the deformity of his limbs, which surely must have affected his brush strokes. He actually had to use unusually long brushes so he would not have to sit too close to the canvas. Nevertheless, his paintings and sketches are wonderfully vibrant. Given the family history, it is hard to avoid wondering whether there was also a genetic basis for the Toulouse-Lautrec line’s legendary history of alcohol abuse.

The reason that there can be hundreds of different mutations is that the DNA sequence that codes for a protein typically is composed of thousands of chemical units called bases. A change in even one base can give rise to a defective protein. Depending on how much damage is done by the mutation, some people are at risk for serious bleeding only after major injury, some bleed severely in response to minor injuries, and some—the most severely affected—bleed spontaneously, especially into their joints, which in the past caused serious skeletal problems.

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, consort to Queen Elizabeth II, is the grandnephew of Empress Alexandra, the tsar’s wife. Because an unbroken female line connects Prince Philip to Alexandra and her children, his DNA could be used to confirm the identity of the skeletons. He agreed to provide a blood sample. Efforts to extract DNA from old bones and use it to establish identity began in 1984 when Russell Higuchi, one of the scientists who developed PCR (polymerase chain reaction, a technology that enables one to amplify large amounts of DNA from exquisitely small initial samples), successfully retrieved mitochondrial DNA sequences from the remains of a 140-yearold quagga, a recently extinct species that looked like a cross between a horse and a zebra.

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