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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Who'd Have Thought It?
distributed 10/18/02 & 6/22/07 - ©2002, 2007

An item in this week's science news reveals the wondrous complexity of God's creation.

The Associated Press story sums it up by saying, "The genetic quirk that makes red hair red may also make carrot-tops harder to knock out in the operating room."

Apparently, many anesthesiologists have noticed that redheads can be a little harder to put under. To test that piece of folklore, researchers administered electric shocks to a group of women, and found that those with red hair needed 20% more anesthesia than other subjects to block the pain. Once the study showed real differences, the scientists went looking for a theory that would explain those results. The proposed mechanism is what is so amazingly complex.

Melanin is a pigment that is responsible for skin and hair color. The body produces melanin when a particular hormone is released. That hormone, in turn, is triggered by exposure to sunlight. It has been known for some time that the striking hair color of redheads, and their difficulty in tanning, is caused by a dysfunctional receptor for that hormone.

The new theory suggests that the mutated receptor in redheads triggers a feedback mechanism that increases production of the hormone. Those higher hormonal levels then react with a related receptor on brain cells that influences pain sensitivity.

Who'd have thought it? Hair color and pain sensitivity are closely related! What a remarkable world we live in.

+     +     +     +     +

The news story about redheads is an interesting oddity on its own. But in that research report I see a cautionary message for our technologically adventurous world.

Modern chemistry has created thousands of new compounds that never existed in nature. The new technologies of genetic engineering splice in fragments of DNA that change the structure or functioning of an organism.

These new advances in science and technology are touted as being safe. But the research on redheads and pain shows the difficulty in knowing what questions to ask as we tinker with the complex systems of our world.

Researchers may have tested for all the expected results from genetic modifications or chemical reactions. They may feel confident that what they produce is safe. But what other questions are not being asked? What relationships are completely unanticipated?

No one expected that the genetic basis for hair color would have anything to do with a person's sensitivity to pain and anesthesia. No one would have thought to look for that relationship if operating room doctors hadn't seen the evidence.

I look back at two infamous environmental disasters as evidence of unexpected relationships which proved to be highly significant.

  • The refrigerant Freon was created to replace two very dangerous alternatives -- hydrogen (which tended to explode) and ammonia (which causes chemical burns). Chemically stable Freon solved both of those problems, and opened the path to safe, economical refrigerators and air conditioning. It was not until Freon had been in widespread use for decades that it was discovered that this "safe" chemical was destroying the ozone layer high above the earth. Who'd have thought it?

  • The insecticide DDT was a blessing for public health around the globe by cutting the threat of malaria for millions of people. It was also widely used in agriculture. In the 1970s, biologists were trying to find out why some bird populations were collapsing. They discovered that DDT concentrates in birds -- like hawks and eagles -- at the top of the food chain, where it disrupts the development of egg shells. An insecticide kills some species of birds because their eggs start to break easily. Who'd have thought it?
I get very nervous when I hear scientists say that they have carefully tested new chemicals, or new genetic possibilities, and have proven that they are safe.

40 years of environmental studies should be making us more and more aware of how little we really know about the complex ecological relationships that surround us. Recent medical research should be a clear lesson about the complex systems that are at work within an organism. And our Christian faith should always remind us that the wonders of God's creation are larger and more complex than we can ever understand.

In the face of new technologies -- and especially those that create self-replicating new life forms -- it is imperative that science and industry move very slowly and cautiously. Rather than an arrogant confidence that we know all there is to know about the effects of what we are adding to God's creation, we should live out of deep humility that acknowledges how little we really know -- how little we can know.

Our churches will be true to our faith and ethics when we ask hard questions about the testing of new technologies, and when we demand stringent safeguards.

The Globe and Mail provides one of the many on-line reports on redheads and anesthesia: "It's hard to knock out a redhead"

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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