Special thanks to Daniel Davis for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – The Compatibility Gene: How Our Bodies Fight Disease, Attract Others, and Define Ourselves
Daniel M. Davis is a renowned scientist who became a Professor at Imperial College London aged 35. He earned a PhD in Physics before studying the immune system at Harvard University, and he is now the Director of Research at The University of Manchester’s Collaborative Centre for Inflammation Research. He has published over 100 academic papers, including articles in Nature, Science, and Scientific American. He has previously won the Oxford University Press Science Writing Prize, and has given numerous interviews for national and international media, including the Times, Guardian, Metro, and National Public Radio (USA). In 2011, he was elected a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences (UK). – From Dan’s lab profile
Daniel’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/dandavishello
#1- What was the impetus for The Compatibility Gene?
We each have a very similar set of genes – the 25,000 or so genes that make up the human genome – but there are variations that give us individual characteristics such as our hair or eye color. Crucially, the few human genes in this story – our compatibility genes – are those that vary the most from person to person. These genes are in effect, a molecular mark that distinguishes each of us as individuals. In essence, my book is about our individuality – and I present one kind of answer to the question ‘who am I?’
#2 – Most people think of compatibility as related to sexual attraction. How do you refer to it in your book?
One of the chapters in my book discusses research that has suggested that immune system genes influence sexual attraction between two people. The idea of genes pervades our culture, and we have no problem accepting that our physical characteristics – hair and eye color, for example – are dictated by our genetic makeup. But can something that feels as intimate as choosing a partner be similarly influenced by our genetic inheritance? The subject is contentious and there’s no simple answer. There is strong evidence that animals choose mates according to the versions of compatibility genes they have. There is evidence that something of this is true in humans but the controversy is in establishing how big an effect this is – because human interactions are undoubtedly complex. My book examines the evidence in detail.
#3 – You focus on a small group of genes. Why are these genes so important?
These genes are medically important because they influence the success of many types of medical transplantation. These are the genes that doctors try to match in bone marrow transplantation for example. But, of course, transplantation is a very unnatural situation and there has been a huge amount of scientific research done to work out what these genes really do in the body. First and foremost these genes work in our immune system. And importantly, the versions of these genes that you have inherited influence which diseases you are susceptible or resistant to. Other provocative research has suggested that these very same genes also influence sexual attraction between two people, the wiring of our brains and the chance that a couple may have certain problems in pregnancy.
#4 – You talk about the history of immunology in your book. How has our thinking changed over that time as our ideas have evolved?
This story of our compatibility gene has unraveled in a global adventure spanning 60 years, working out the science behind medical transplantation and immunology, leading to our eventual understanding of how and why compatibility genes are crucial to our health. This is a revolution in our understanding of the human body—but not one that came in a single Eureka moment; this knowledge has come from experiments happening in different places across the globe over decades. My book highlights many aspects of this: such as how the role of women in science has changed over the last 60 years and how molecular biology has changed the way we set out to answer big questions.
#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?
I want to keep talking about The Compatibility Gene a while longer before I commit to another book project but undoubtedly, there are many fascinating stories in immunology that I think deserve more attention. I’m also focussed on my own research program just now – which is in imaging the way in which immune cells detect signs of disease.
[Image Credit: http://www.intranet.ls.manchester.ac.uk/images/551/7160364.jpg ]