Scientists today announced they have located a gene apparently responsible for a person's sense of humor. The finding may provide potential drug targets for those who "just don't get it."
Scientists have debated for years whether humans are really unique among other animals in their ability to find things funny. One thing that most researchers do agree on, however, is that, though widespread, the ability is not shared by all people. "Just look at undertakers and politicians," says Horace Epstein, a geneticist at the Lachen Institute in Trenton, New Jersey. Reasoning that these differences between people might be due to variations in the DNA sequence of a "funny gene," Epstein looked for families with a strong humor history.
Epstein's team found a large family in Gobblers Knob, Kentucky, that had demonstrated lightheartedness over several generations. "By comparing family members who loved Seinfeld with members who had a fondness for C-SPAN, we were able to narrow down the gene's location to a large track of DNA sequence on the X chromosome," says Epstein. After using computer databases to locate candidate genes, the researchers homed in on three stretches where the Seinfelders had a DNA sequence that differed from that of the C-SPANners.
The researchers then expressed the genes in mice. Two had no effect, but the third caused the mice to emit a high-pitched squeak when they were shown a picture of a cat being hit by an anvil. "I think we can safely assume the mice were laughing at the cat's misfortune," says Epstein, whose group will publish its work in an upcoming issue of Genes and Behavior.
Because the gene's protein contains a large number of histidines and alanines, the researchers have settled on calling it HAHA-1. "I expect we'll find that comedians like Robin Williams express high levels of the protein, while individuals such as Dick Cheney likely have HAHA-1 mutations," says Epstein.
"It's a remarkable discovery," says Sarah Haugton, a molecular biologist at River Glen University in Burlington, Vermont. "There's a funny bone, so why not a funny gene?" Robert Chadwick, a genome researcher at London's Northhaven University believes the study could lead to potential gene therapy treatments for those without a sense a humor. "Think of all of those people who don't get April Fools jokes," he says. "Now they may finally be able to laugh."