Feeling Sick? Blame Your Selfish Genes


Why does infection with bacteria or viruses make you feel sick? Prof. Guy Shakhar and Dr. Keren Shakhar have proposed that your symptoms are not just a byproduct of your body’s attempt to get rid of the infection. It is your genes’ way of ensuring they are passed down. The long and short of their argument is that the malaise, loss of appetite and lethargy are all ways of isolating you from your social group – so that your kin, who carry many of your genes, are not infected as well.

That means we share an evolutionary adaptation with such organisms as bees that go off to die far from the hive if they get sick. Shakhar and Shakhar note that we look, behave, sound (meh!) and even smell different when we are sick, and that these signals trigger the basic instinct in others to stay away.

Bees leave the hive when they are sick Bees leave the hive when they are sick. Image: Wikimedia commons

The researchers say that their proposal is not just an interesting thought exercise. Modern medicine enables us to ignore our innate instincts when we’re sick, take a pill, and go to work. They think it might be time to start paying attention to what millions of years of evolution have written into our behavior, and maybe stop spreading our infectious diseases around the office.

And if you happen to be recovering at home (or just browsing at your office desk), you can read our other two stories today:

An atomic clock that Weizmann Institute scientists are working on for the ESA’s mission to Jupiter that will test the planet’s atmosphere and its moons’ gravity, and self-assembling nanoflasks that make chemical reactions run hundreds of times faster.




More like this