Mutation: The Science of Survival

Mutation: The Science of Survival

2003, Nature  -   26 Comments
Ratings: 7.98/10 from 42 users.

Monster mutants lurk in the myths of many cultures, and we're fascinated yet fearful of nature's mutants. But mutants are closer to home than we think. Often invisible, mutations are happening all around us, in every living thing. They're crucial part of evolution. Now researchers are uncovering how mutations actually work and that may help us find cures for life threatening diseases. As we understand more about mutation we may discover more secrets of the history and future of life on this planet.

In 19th century America, people flocked to dime museums to view the odd and the unexplained. Dime museums were full of anything the American public would pay 10 cents to see. People were always been interested in the weird, the strange, the bizarre, the exotic and the unusual. For just 10 cents they came to see the worst that nature had on offer. Some creatures were fake products of an entrepreneur's imagination, but others brought us face to face with real mutations.

In Great Britain there was a celebrated sideshow freak Joseph Merrick, the famed elephant man. A tragic mutation within his genes gave rise to a disease called Proteus Syndrome. Large bony growths covered the right side of his entire body. A mutation is a change in our genes. Deep within every cell, our chromosomes hold the instructions for life and the genes are held on long and delicate strands of DNA.

They're like a recipe book, but sometimes there's an unexpected change in part of the recipe. The result is an altered or damaged gene that we call a mutation. For Joseph Merrick the mutation was so severe, he could never lead a normal life. He spent his adult years as a sideshow freak until he was rescued and offered shelter at the Royal London Hospital. His short life ended at the age of 28.

Toady such human tragedies are no longer a source of entertainment, but many of us are still fascinated by creatures that are one in a million. In West Fork, Arkansas, Fred Lally has spent 50 years collecting some of the most unusual reptiles. Fred has been fascinated by reptilian oddities all his life, and he now makes a living by taking his mutant pets on tour to summer county fairs. But of all the animal anomalies he encountered in his long career one stands hand a shoulders above the rest. Fred paid $20,000 for one of the rarest reptiles in the world - the snake named "Golden Girls."

In nature conjoined twins are rare, but they nearly always make the slot at the end of the evening news bulletins. In humans, if the embryo hasn't divided by the third week of pregnancy, then Siamese or conjoined twins may result. They're among the rarest of human beings. Only a few hundred pairs are born each year, more than half are stillborn and may live for only a few days. But are conjoined twins actually caused by mutation? Whether conjoined twins are mutations or not they're only the tip of the mutation iceberg. Mutations are happening every day to all of us, but most of the time they're invisible.

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26 Comments / User Reviews

  1. Dan

    There's some crazy comments on here over a documentary made well over 14 years ago. Just to put some sanity out and religion are two separate things. It's cute when religious people try to make out that nature is their toy because "god created it", when really if you think about it's the one thing that completely blows the idea of any god existing, out of the water. Natural disasters, earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, tsunami's......all things that are too powerful for an all powerful deity to stop. Just shows how pathetic the rantings and conclusions of poorly educated men were. It makes fabulous fiction...but it's a part of fictional history nontheless. Imagine if some futuristic tribe found harry potter.....would we all be worshipping daniel radcliffe as harry reincarnated?

    1. Mol

      First of all nothing is more powerful than God. He created everything and nothing is impossible to him. He is omnipotent, meaning he has all power and can do anything. He can stop natural disasters but he doesn’t because it’s all apart of his plan. He has a plan for me and a plan for you.

  2. Tom Carberry

    This documentary has very interesting information about mutations, but I don't buy the "survival of the fittest" or the positive mutation, as the fossil record belies both.

    The giant dinosaurs didn't die out because of unfit genes, they died because of an earth destroying asteroid.

    And most of the large land creatures today, have descended from much larger, fitter animals, including humans.

    The idea that a population bottleneck will lead to something good just doesn't play out. Inbreeding leads to pejorative mutations.

    I believe the ultimate answer may lie in genetics, but the stuff discussed in this documentary seems wrong.

    And this documentary completely ignores the endocrine system in mutations. As many or more mutations probably occur from endocrine errors as with gene errors. Look at Jaws from the James Bond movies, with an endocrine condition called acromegaly, which affects many people, where the pituitary produces too much growth hormone.

  3. Richard Neva

    Another blatant example of how US Wars have altered the genetic make up of fellow human beings. As America continues making war on humans we can expect even more horrors.

  4. Ryan Parks

    A mutation is simply when a gene in DNA changes, not some two headed freakshow that was a result of twin embryos merging together, since the genetics in those may otherwise be normal.
    A good example of a recessive mutations is albinism, which can occur in all vertebrates and is a result of pigment genes being damaged, lost, or altered, which results in a different outcome of color.
    So, like many things, it is not what hollywood is going to make it to be. Real mutations are nothing like "X-Men."

  5. Tobias MacRobie

    I don't much care for how they use the words mutation and damage interchangeably. I also don't much care for their explanation of UV radiation on DNA (the T-T dimers), which they kinda skip that and just use some scary cancer terms. yay! So, um, viewer beware, this is a show about - not mutations -. That's right, it has to do with failed cellular process, and selective breeding. Somehow, this equates to mutagenics. It's one part practical medicine (read; outdated and proud medicine), coupled with hollywood scare tactics, because viewers want cheap thrills. Please, if you watch this, don't make a fool of yourself by talking about mutations in terms of the content of this video. They have run afoul.

  6. Jenna Ducommun

    Just wondering if this is a good documentary to watch? I've noticed most people are putting comments to what they think personally compared to how good this one was...

    1. avd420

      Welcome to TDF dear. If you hang out for a few minutes you'll see that's how most of the comments go around here.

      Whether or not one would think it's good has a lot to do with personal preference, beliefs and prior knowledge to the subject being discussed.

      I've watched plenty of docs on mutations, genes, evolution, etc, etc and still enjoyed this one if only for the freakshow aspect of it. Will you enjoy it as well? Only one way to find out! Either way be sure to leave a comment expressing your thoughts!

  7. Robin Wright

    what is most amazing is that there is a free element that goes around correcting defects in the DNA - Unless this is all a bit of the scientific imagination, the existence of such a corrective element that tries to patch over the bad links and makes sure the DNA strands are OK is beyond belief. Creation or evolution - it does not, in the end, matter, - what is extraordinary is the thoroughness with which life contains systematic auto-corrective mechanisms for survival. But, how does this element "KNOW" WHEN something is not right ??? It is just too incredible

    1. avd420

      It's completely credible. Or else it wouldn't exist.

    2. durike

      it is protein structure, enzyme, one of the method is complementarity. maybe there are other mechanisms. but the enzymes work like robots.

  8. Carl Hendershot

    Nevadas bomb drops hurt many people long after and is rarely remembered... This is not too downgrade the drops in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was said that they might ignite the entire atmosphere around the world and still they were tested and dropped... What does this say about your so called elected leaders.

    1. Carl Hendershot

      One more thing ~ The BBQ part scares the hell out of me..

    2. robertallen1

      Then get an electric grill. I've had my George Foreman model for several years now and it works just fine.

  9. robertallen1

    A propos of this documentary. There is a recent news item entitled "Two-Faced Kitten Born in Oregon." Perhaps a link should be created for it.

  10. dmxi

    is a mute ant a mutant ?

    1. Bos O

      Of course.

  11. His Forever

    It's on my bucket list for tomorrow.

  12. Glen

    Thank God for nature

    1. wald0

      Which god? Never mind, they are all basically the same in the end. A better question is, "Why?" I'd say we should thank the natural laws of the universe, they after all did create nature in all its varied forms and continue to sculpt it daily- but that really makes no sense. Thanking an inanimate concept is just as pointless as thanking the great ju-ju up the mountain. So here we are, all this beauty and complexity and no one to thank for it really- could that tell us something about human nature? That our sense of justice says we should thank someone for anything we find pleasurable, valuable, pleasing, etc. and we should always blame someone when we find something wrong, painful, stressful, etc. It appears that when their is no one to really blame or thank we create agency, intention, even consciousness to fill this role. Isn't the human mind astounding?

    2. Glen

      I was being facetious , off course it is easy to thank God/s when you don't understand what is going on and and not much has changed even today and I am sure once science explains if all there will still be God bothers, like Doctor who smoke or believe in God.

    3. CharlieB241

      Dude, you seriously need to stop. No one asked for you to write a novel about your beliefs.

    4. avd420

      wald0, please continue writing a novel about your beliefs. Many of us here find it informative and enjoyable to read at the same time.