The Compatibility Gene by Daniel M Davis: "I am very rare but my wife is rather common"

The scientist Daniel M Davis has told the story of genetic compatibility - and the rejection that is its opposite - with great insight and decades of research. It's a field that may yield significant treasures in the decades to come.

The Compatibility Gene
Daniel M Davis
Allen Lane, 256pp, £20

“I am very rare but my wife is rather common.” This is not a sentence that would normally endear an author to you, let alone make you feel a little sorry for him. The thing is, it’s not great being exotic. Should Daniel M Davis get seriously ill, his chances of finding a transplant match are very bad. When he tells you that his wife is not one in a million but one in 100,000, you should feel good for her. Davis is one in four million, according to the genetic tests that the couple underwent. That’s very bad news, transplant-wise.

This all comes down to what Davis terms the “compatibility genes”. They are the set of genes that determine the make-up of your immune system and make you who you are.

We worry about where we came from. There is not a human civilisation on the planet that does not pay attention to its ancestors in some way. TV genealogy shows have probably amplified this trait, encouraging us to treasure our roots (or despair at them) in ever larger measure. So it’s no wonder we don’t cope well with the idea of organ transplantation: it messes with everything.

A study carried out in Sweden demonstrates the problem. In interviews with patients who had received someone else’s kidney, almost all of the subjects said that they felt it was best not to know too much about the donor. For some irrational, inexplicable reason, we are psychologically sideswiped by the idea that someone else’s meat has been installed inside our own. Some patients even worried about worrying about it, expressing a fear that too much “brooding” over the donor could lead their bodies to reject the foreign tissue.

We now know, thanks to a half-century of scientific sleuthing, that this isn’t true. Rejection of foreign bodies results from the activities of the compatibility genes. Davis’s enlightening book tells the extraordinary story of that discovery. As well as dealing with foreign tissue, the compatibility genes seem to influence our selection of biologically beneficial partners. It turns out that we look for complementary immune systems that enhance the chance of our offspring’s survival. Get it wrong at your peril: the compatibility genes are, it seems, frequently to blame in miscarriages. The contributions frommother and father have to be a good complementary pairing for a pregnancy to be successful. If Davis’s wife had chosen a more “common” man, she might have found herself with someone whose genes were too similar to her own, with adverse effects on the couple’s fertility. As Davis puts it, “Differences in our immune-system genes can influence who gets born.”

Sadly, science has not yet given us ways to cope with these differences. The best you can do is try to find a partner who somehow smells right. Evolution’s finest innovation might be the nose: we use it to check whether someone else’s immune system is complementary to our own.

Evolution is not perfect, however: given that as many as one in three pregnancies ends in miscarriage, cleary the smell is too subtle. Either that or we are all washing too thoroughly (or not doing enough investigative snogging).

It is almost ironic that the scientists who laid the foundations of this kind of research also had coupling issues. The Nobel laureate biologist Peter Medawar’s work elucidating what causes the rejection of transplants was so intense that he told his wife that she had claim on his love but not his time (and that he would be fine with an open marriage). The Danish biologist and sadomasochism fan Niels Jerne had a string of affairs before his wife (who had her share of lovers) committed suicide; it was only later, suppressing his grief with a gruelling work schedule, that Jerne uncovered the protective powers of antibodies. The Austrian Karl Landsteiner discovered the vital distinctions we know as blood groups. He also lived with his mother until she died. When he married shortly after that, the new Mrs Landsteiner faced the nightly distraction of her mother-in-law’s death mask on the bedroom wall. To her credit, the couple did manage to have a child.

Many more scientists are threaded through the pages of Davis’s thoughtful book and they all share one thing: the grinding heartbreak that is the slow progress of scientific discovery. It’s a heartbreak that Davis knows well; he is a leading figure in this subject. Though the science behind what causes our body to recognise itself and reject foreign material is more than 60 years old, he tells us, the conclusions we can draw from it are still fairly limited. Nonetheless, The Compatibility Gene is a fascinating, expertly told story of a field that may yield significant treasures in the decades to come.

Michael Brooks is the New Statesman’s science columnist 

The science behind our bodies' rejection of foreign material is 60 years old, Davis writes, but the conclusions we can draw are still limited. Photograph: Getty Images.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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7 things we learned from the Comic Relief Love, Actually sequel

Even gay subtext is enough to get you killed.

After weeks of hype, the Love, Actually Comic Relief short sequel, Red Nose Day, Actually, finally aired tonight. It might not compare to Stephen’s version of events, but was exactly what you’d expect, really – the most memorable elements of each plotline recreated and recycled, with lots of jokes about the charity added in. So what did Red Nose Day, Actually actually teach us?

Andrew Lincoln’s character was always a creep

It was weird to show up outside Keira Knightley’s house in 2003, and it’s even weirder now, when you haven’t seen each other in almost a decade. Please stop.

It’s also really weird to bring your supermodel wife purely to show her off like a trophy. She doesn’t even know these people. She must be really confused. Let her go home, “Mark”.

Kate Moss is forever a great sport

Judging by the staggering number of appearances she makes at these things, Kate Moss has never said no to a charity appearance, even when she’s asked to do the most ridiculous and frankly insulting things, like pretend she would ever voluntarily have sex with “Mark”.

Self-service machines are a gift and a curse

In reality, Rowan Atkinson’s gift-wrapping enthusiast would have lasted about one hour in Sainsbury’s before being replaced by a machine.

Colin Firth’s character is an utter embarrassment, pull yourself together man

You’re a writer, Colin. You make a living out of paying attention to language and words. You’ve been married to your Portuguese-speaking wife for almost fourteen years. You learned enough to make a terrible proposal all those years ago. Are you seriously telling me you haven’t learned enough to sustain a single conversation with your family? Do you hate them? Kind of seems that way, Colin.

Even gay subtext is enough to get you killed

As Eleanor Margolis reminds us, a deleted storyline from the original Love, Actually was one in which “the resplendent Frances de la Tour plays the terminally ill partner of a “stern headmistress” with a marshmallow interior (Anne Reid).” Of course, even in deleted scenes, gay love stories can only end in death, especially in 2003. The same applies to 2017’s Red Nose Day actually. Many fans speculated that Bill Nighy’s character was in romantic love with his manager, Joe – so, reliably, Joe has met a tragic end by the time the sequel rolls around.  

Hugh Grant is a fantasy Prime Minister for 2017

Telling a predatory POTUS to fuck off despite the pressure to preserve good relations with the USA? Inspirational. No wonder he’s held on to office this long, despite only demonstrating skills of “swearing”, “possibly harassing junior staff members” and “somewhat rousing narration”.

If you get together in Christmas 2003, you will stay together forever. It’s just science.

Even if you’ve spent nearly fourteen years clinging onto public office. Even if you were a literal child when you met. Even if you hate your wife so much you refuse to learn her first language.

Now listen to the SRSLY Love, Actually special:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.