Korean Geneticists Create Lesbian Mice

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday July 15, 2010

The idea of a "gay gene" has been something of a hot-button issue, with anti-gay activists insisting that there is no genetic basis for homosexuality and that gays are sexually attracted to people of the same gender as a "lifestyle choice."

That claim, however, is contradicted by science. While no "gay gene" has yet been pinpointed, evidence points to a physiological basis for homosexuality. Moreover, intriguing new research carried out in Korea shows that there might indeed be a genetic basis for homosexuality, at least in mice--not by the presence of a specific "gay gene," but rather due to the deletion of a gene.

When Korean researchers deleted a gene in laboratory mice relevant to a specific enzyme, fucose mutarotase, what they ended up with were female mice whose sexual behavior focused on other female mice, due to a "masculinization" of their brain structures, reported Neuroscience on July 15. The female mice shunned sexual contact with male mice, and displayed sexual interest in other females.

"The mutant female mouse underwent a slightly altered developmental program in the brain to resemble the male brain in terms of sexual preference," stated Professor Chankyu Park. Professor Park led the research, which took place at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejon, South Korea, reported U.K. newspaper The Daily Telegraph on July 8.

Similar brain structure differences have been theorized to account for gay and lesbian humans. Scientists suspect that in utero hormone levels play a role in the development of human fetuses that later develop into gay or lesbian adults. Several studies have confirmed a slight, but definite, increase in the incidence of homosexuality in children whose mothers have already given birth to male offspring.

Though changing the hormone balance in the human brain in the same way would probably not lead to a "masculinization" of human neural pathways--the specific hormones that appear to govern human brains and related sexuality are different than in mice--it is possible that an analogous genetic change could have a similar impact of human sexuality. However, a genetically based "cure" (or prevention) for gay humans also seems questionable, since human sexuality could be the result of a confluence of factors.

It is an open question how society might be affected by the eventual discovery of a "gay gene," or even a number of genes interacting in a way that leads to gays and lesbians, rather than heterosexuals, developing. Gay volunteers for a study looking at genetic factors for homosexuality expressed a hope that if a scientific basis in genetics were discovered for homosexuality, the claim--prevalent among religious conservatives--that gays "choose" their sexual orientation would be put to rest once and for all. Were that to be the case, social and legal restrictions on gay equality--such as marriage--might disappear.

However, it is as unlikely that society will change on a dime as it is that a single gene will be discovered that accounts for all or most cases of human homosexuality. An Associated Press article from Oct. 28. 2007, that reported on the study also carried a quote from Exodus International leader Alan Chambers, who claims to be a former gay man himself. Chambers declared that no matter what science proves about the innate origins of homosexuality, genetics "will never be something that forces people to behave in a certain way." Added Chambers, "We all have the freedom to choose."

The Gay and Lesbian Medical Association's Joel Ginsberg told the Associated Press that one concern among GLBTs is that any such discovery of a definitive genetic basis for homosexuality might lead to demands for pre-natal testing to screen out--and possibly terminate--fetuses determined likely to grown into gays and lesbians.

One individual posting commentary to an entry at the website Queer Science on the Korean research wrote, "if scientists ever actually do prove that homosexuality is genetic, I wonder how the fundamentalists will react? How are they going to reconcile 'Man shouldn't play God!' with 'The homos are eeeevil!' Are they going to advocate for using genetic manipulation to 'cure' homosexuality in the womb? Or are they going to accept that some humans are homosexual and that God made them that way?" Added the posting, "Being cynical, and expecting maximum evil from that crowd, I can easily imagine them resolving the dilemma by calling homosexuals genetic defectives, and advocating for eugenics to remove them from the population."

Another individual sought to answer that query by speculating that the response from people of faith would be, "When God initially created humanity, it was perfect, but the many sins of mankind have since caused even its very DNA to become adulterated!"

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.