Monday, August 22, 2005

Harry Potter and the Recessive Allele


Nature 436, 776 (11 August 2005) | doi: 10.1038/436776a

Harry Potter and the recessive allele

Jeffrey M. Craig1,3, Renee Dow2 and MaryAnne Aitken2,3

    1. Chromosome Research, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, Royal Childrens Hospital, Flemington Road, Parkville, Victoria 3052, Australia

    2. Genetics Education, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, Royal Childrens Hospital, Flemington Road, Parkville, Victoria 3052, Australia

    3. Department of Paediatrics, University of Melbourne, Royal Childrens Hospital, Flemington Road, Parkville, Victoria 3052, Australia


We are bombarded with news of genetic discoveries on an almost daily basis, but people without a formal knowledge of heredity and genetics can have difficulty in deciphering and applying this information. Education and debate across all ages would undoubtedly help, but how can we teach children these concepts?

We believe that successful lessons for younger children can be achieved using analogies of direct interest and relevance. Most children are familiar with J. K. Rowling's stories about the young wizard Harry Potter (whose latest exploit, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, was published by Bloomsbury in July). They are set in a world like our own, but populated by a minority of people with supernatural powers (wizards and witches) and a majority of people without (muggles).

Wizards or witches can be of any race, and may be the offspring of a wizard and a witch, the offspring of two muggles ('muggle-born'), or of mixed ancestry ('half-blood').

    With the use of these examples, the concepts of mendelian genetics can be introduced to children as young as five.

    J. M Craig, R. Dow, M. A. Aitken

This suggests that wizarding ability is inherited in a Mendelian fashion, with the wizard allele (W) being recessive to the muggle allele (M). According to this hypothesis, all wizards and witches therefore have two copies of the wizard allele (WW). Harry's friends Ron Weasley and Neville Longbottom and his arch-enemy Draco Malfoy are 'pure-blood' wizards: WW with WW ancestors for generations back. Harry's friend Hermione is a powerful muggle-born witch (WW with WM parents). Their classmate Seamus is a half-blood wizard, the son of a witch and a muggle (WW with one WW and one WM parent). Harry (WW with WW parents) is not considered a pure-blood, as his mother was muggle-born.

There may even be examples of incomplete penetrance (Neville has poor wizarding skills) and possible mutations or questionable paternity: Filch, the caretaker, is a 'squib', someone born into a wizarding family but with no wizarding powers of their own.

We believe that, with the use of these examples, the concepts of Mendelian Genetics can be introduced to children as young as five, and then built on by gradually introducing specific terms such as 'gene' and 'allele', and relating these to chromosomes and DNA. 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.


Many thanks to my friend Ellen for forwarding this to me.

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© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

7 Peer Reviews:

Blogger Glo said...

That's a fabulous take....I love applying science to real-world events...but I just plain love science, so that may have been a redundant statement.

I've wanted to get over here forever. I always enjoy your comments at Andy's blog.

5:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is just great.

2:43 AM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

Well, I don't think this is right... how would there be any WMs if wizards and muggles are endogenic?

(I realize I'm spending far too much time debating the minutiae of a series I don't even like)

I personally think it's easier to explain genetics to people using hair or eye color.

10:29 AM  
Blogger saurabh said...

It also seems likely that if a Mendelian model followed, there would be lots of half-n-half wizarding families (WW marries WM, ends up with 50% WM kids, all muggles). Since the W allele is presumably rare, this means the odds of producing a WW offspring in a Muggle-Wizard pairing are WM/(WM+MM). Tiny - given the premium wizards place on their gift, it seems unlikely they would ever marry Muggles were this the case. But we know, in fact, they do so quite often. Either the genetics are ill thought-out, or there's something more than simple Mendelian inheritance going on here.

12:00 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

1GloriousConundrum; thanks! glad you like it (the story and the blog).

Alon; endogenic? Huh?

saurabh; wizards, like muggles, seem to marry for love. That's probably the confounding factor. Besides, isn't there a problem with inbreeding? I seem to recall something like that with Voldemort's family .. and don't forget, while we are on the subject, Voldemort's mother enchanted his muggle father such that he believed he was in love with her .. so there's always that confounding factor to consider, too.


12:01 PM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

For some reason I misread the word "endogamous" as "endogenic" - don't ask. My point was that there are some half-bloods, but not that many, if I recall correctly, and I probably don't.

2:21 PM  
Anonymous ina said...

Have any of you seen this book ? I just bought it as a Chanukah present for a friend's's a riot (though they don't address the wizarding-inheritance, they do suggest the possibility that some of the HP critters are the result of genetic manipulations...)

it's at if you're curious...


6:51 PM  

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