The Daredevil Gene
Fear for your life every time the surf picks up? Blame your heredity.
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YOU’D LIKE TO CHARGE 60-FOOT WAVES LIKE LAIRD HAMILTON, but you panic in anything that breaks higher than your head. Does he have something you don’t? Actually, it might be the other way around. Scientists at the Seattle-based Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center have traced “fear response” (your tendency to avoid things that might kill you) to a gene called neuroD2. The researchers engineered a population of mice with just one neuroD2 gene—like humans, mice typically have two—and found that they exhibited significantly less aversion to potential danger than their normal counterparts. Dr. James M. Olson, who led the Hutchinson study, says it’s unlikely that a human would ever be born with just one neuroD2 gene. But different people could have different concentrations of the protein that the genes produce. Higher levels might lead to safer behavior, while lower levels might lead to more magazine covers. The next step will be human studies. While it’s doubtful that there will ever be a daredevil shot to ease your fears (since the part of the brain in charge of flight responses is developed in utero), neuroD2 tests could hit your wallet. “Life insurance companies look at more than blood pressure and weight,” says Mary Rae Fouts, an insurance analyst based in Walnut Creek, California. “They also look at your lifestyle. Assuming the link to risk taking was valid and the test was cost-effective, applicants [with lower protein levels] could expect to pay higher premiums or possibly be denied coverage altogether.” And if you have higher levels? You can sit at home trying to convince yourself that you’re genetically superior to Laird.