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Harry Potter and the genetics lesson

Three experts in genetic diseases argue Harry Potter could help children as young as five years old understand the basics of genetics.
/ Source: Forbes

For a fictional character, Harry Potter has worked a lot of magic in the real world. His books have sold hundreds of millions of copies, his films have grossed some $2 billion, and he has made his creator, J.K. Rowling, very rich — she is the first author to become a billionaire according to Forbes' annual rankings.

Now, three experts in genetic diseases argue the young wizard could cast another spell and help children as young as five years old understand the basics of genetics.

The idea is set forth in a short letter in a recent issue of the scientific journal Nature, by Jeffrey M. Craig, Renee Dow and MaryAnne Aitken, experts in treating and counseling children with genetic diseases at Royal Children's Hospital in Australia. "At every stage, the children's familiarity with the Harry Potter characters can be used as a hook to engage them in discussing concepts of heredity and genetics," they write.

In Potter's world, most people are muggles, normal folks with no magical power. But some are wizards, with the power to do magic. Wizarding appears to be hereditary, but occasionally a muggle child will appear with natural magical ability, such as Harry's friend Hermione Granger.

Such stealth traits are readily handled by classic genetics — in the form of recessive genes.

In the scenario, there are two versions of the gene for magical ability — the M version, which creates muggles, and the W version, which is needed for wizardry. But everyone gets two copies of the gene — one from each parent — and even a single M scuttles any hope for a magical career.

Only the lucky few with the genes WW will have magical ability. Those who are MW will be muggles, but there is still a chance for their children. If two muggles who are MW have a child, there is a one in four chance that the child will be WW — and able to cast spells. That would explain how Harry's friend Hermione could be a wizard born of muggle parents. Likewise, it could explain how Harry Potter's mother was born of muggles.

Meanwhile, other characters, like the rotten Draco Malfoy, are WW children of WW parents — pure-blooded wizards.

The analogy is useful because real-life recessive genes, such as those for eye color, hair color and other traits, follow this same set of rules. In this way, it could give children a tool for understanding their own heredity, and eventually help them understand the kind of genetic research that has been pivotal to biotech companies such as Amgen and Genzyme.

And wizards are a lot more interesting that the traditional example used in science class: peas. Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, discovered the basic principles of heredity by tracking the shape of pea seeds and the color of pea plant flowers. Harry Potter is certainly going to grab more imaginations than a much-hated vegetable.

It's only a matter of time before Harry's corporate patrons at Scholastic and Time Warner decide to put his face on textbooks and educational films, too.