It’s not just because they are lucky enough to live in one of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet. It’s also because they’re great model organisms, guinea pigs — the zebrafish of humanity. They represent a small, isolated population with a well-documented history and excellent medical records, so they’re just the people you might want to do in-depth genetic studies on.
In these latest studies, deCODE sequenced the full genomes of 2,636 Icelanders, along with less detailed genetic information from more than 100,000 others, in the form of genotyping microarrays like the ones used by 23andMe that look at every 10,000 or so of the genome’s 3 billion letters. That covers almost a third of the entire population—and Iceland’s genealogical and medical records are famously exquisite. “The Icelandic system is the perfect system to do this in,” says Lisa Brooks, director of the genetic variation program at the National Human Genome Research Institute. Established by Norsemen and Celts in 9 A.D., Iceland has a remarkably homogenous population that can trace its lineage to just a few common ancestors, according to Kári Stefánsson, deCODE’s founder and CEO. That means that there’s less genetic variation, which in turn means less background noise to interfere with the identification of meaningful gene variants. In the new papers, the tally is 20 million variants, some of which have already been linked to diseases.
It just makes a fellow want to visit and do experiments.
There’s another reason to visit, too — they’re a nation of hilarious freethinkers. A while back, I mentioned how, as a joke, Icelandic atheists proposed to register every newborn as an atheist, as a reaction to the default assumption that they’re all Lutheran. There was a media meltdown over it, which just goes to show how touchy the religious are.
Now Vantrú has posted an analysis of the outcome of their satire. It’s good reading: not only do they make serious points about contradictions in the Icelandic constitution, they also post some of the outraged mail they got from Christian Icelanders who were appalled at being enrolled in an organization they did not support, against their will. I hope they’ve since learned some perspective, and now appreciate how atheist Icelanders might feel.
And if they don’t, they’re the first in line for the creepy invasive genetic experiments.
No! Not really!
I am going to have to find another excuse to visit Iceland, though. Beautiful place, wonderful people, and a charming city — my daughter has wisely chosen to have her honeymoon there. If only I could peel my wife away from her work for a few weeks, we could go on our own second honeymoon there…not that that will happen anytime in the near future.