Sunday, August 30, 2009

Across the Genetic Divide


There is something about cloudy days and a visit to the zoo. The overcast clouds are pleated and wrinkled from horizon to horizon. The turgidity makes them stoop down onto the earth encasing tall towers in their grey interior. The earth is still, breached only by the sounds of the inhabitants. The chimps playful in their cages dangle from bars while the orangutans quietly ignore the passersby and are immersed in the grooming of their young, carefully de-licing and nitpicking.

Two teens kicking a ball around the walkway come to rest and look at the chimps. One is nudging the other. The chimp closest to them shows interest in their behavior. The chimpanzee starts to mimic their actions to the great delight of the teens. The interactive theater of mutual thrills continues for a while then the chimp seems to bore and look for other action. The teens continue to observe while surveying their surroundings.

“Hey Mister. Did you see that?”


“These are some smart monkeys.” The taller skinnier of them says.

“Looks like it.”

“I wonder what they think?” He asks.

“We know they have limited intelligence. But they are able to understand how to express their needs. They are also playful as you just saw. Very little difference between us and them.”

“You an animal expert or something?”

“Me, no just curious.”

“What? I should hope there is more difference between and that monkey.”

“As a matter of fact they have 98% of the same gene code as us.”


“The only difference is that we have elements of thinking, understanding and cognition due to our larger brains that they don’t. But those Orangutans do have a capacity to learn. There was a naturalist named Jane Goodall who researched this and made it her life’s ambition.”

“Oh.” Josh’s thoughts had drifted elsewhere.

At this time the other teen turns around for the first time. He has a pasty complexion, wide set eyes, a flattened bridge of his nose, thick lips and a capacious mouth. His head is supported on a wide neckline topped with a thinned black hair.

“Hi.” He says in a thick voice.


“This is my friend Cag, and I am Josh.” The other one extends his hand in friendship.

The conversation continues. Josh and Cag have been friends since childhood. Both are next-door neighbors. Cag is slow and deliberate. Josh carries the mantle of their conversation. Josh finally asks, “Are you a doctor or something?”


“Tell me then about my friend Cag.” Then after a moment of reflection he volunteers, “Oh he doesn’t mind too much. Besides I want to be a doctor too so that I can take care of Cag. We are best buddies and always will be.” He squeezes his friend’s shoulder. “Cag and I have no secrets.”

“So tell me about Cag.”

“Google the words Trisomy 21, and ask me any questions you have tomorrow morning here at the same time.”

Theirs is a journey with unequal distances. This thriving friendship will be tested and will have moments of sheer delight and a handful of heartaches. These moments will revel themselves at the appointed time. But their friendship will see both of them through. The contrasting desire to learn in one equals the visually empathic style of the other creating a strong link. The knots of these small differences help them climb this braided rope. Both enjoy the value of the other. The concern of one is equaled by the unapologetic loyalty of the other. As they move away in their quest to gather more insights into the animal kingdom of the zoo, Cag bends down to pick up something and shows it to Josh. They both view it with interest and then Cag with a wave of his hand lets the little insect fly away. The history of their friendship sealed in that moment, like Geppetto breathing life into wood each such moment breathes life into their friendship.

The next morning the sun is ablaze with possibilities. The animals are at a fever pitch in their cages enjoying nature’s bounty.

“Where’s Cag?”

“He had to go with his parents.” Josh replies. But I do have questions for you.”


“Why do the chromosomes not split?”

“No one knows. This seems to occur in older women when the germ cells divide, the 21st chromosome fails to separate (Non-disjunction) and when the father’s separated chromosomes on division of the germ cell merges with the mother’s two undivided chromosomes the result is three of the 21st chromosomes instead of a pair. This trisomy as its called leads to developmental defects in the baby.”

“The chromosome is full of genes?” He looked at his feet trying to visualize the entity. “Isn’t three better than two.”

“The answer to the first is yes. It is the DNA, which consists of two spaghetti like strands zippered together. There are 30,000 genes in the entire human DNA library. Answer to the second is, when areas that govern different function mix inadvertently, there are unintended consequences, unfortunately it is not additive.”

“What about Cag’s chances of being normal?”

“Unfortunately Josh, that is impossible. His arrested development in both features and brain also affects his mental development. This varies from complete helplessness to a functioning person. Fortunately for Cag he has a functional life.”

“The internet suggested that there is a high possibility of infections and other disease that go along with this. Why?”

“Well, the genetic disturbance can affect other areas that govern a human’s daily life. The kids with Down Syndrome as it is called can develop infections and other ailments over time.” This knowledge causes a concern on Josh’s face. “But with modern medicine that can easily be handled.” His face relaxes.

“Why do they call it Down Syndrome?”

“Named after the scientist, Langdon Down, who described it in the late 1800s.”


The conversation continues in a question and answer format. When Josh can find no further questions to ask he claims with undisputed desire, “I want to be a research doctor.”

The desires of an individual thrive in the pockets of human affection. Countless scientists, researchers, brilliant game-changers have embarked on a field to find answers to difficult questions not for the glory but for the sake of a loved one, a friend or unquenchable curiosity. Most, with this relentless desire that pushes its invisible force, will find the recipe to the cocktail of success. The discovery ultimately serves all of humanity. Josh will be one of those few with that desire.

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