The curious case of the wanderlust gene
DNA is responsible for the colour of our eyes, but can just one single gene define how we see the world?
“Not everyone who wanders is lost” said Tolkien, who understood very well the importance of a journey. The great legends of literature took on the responsibility of turning the meaning of existence itself into a metphor. The hero’s journey is the oldest story in the world: Ulysses in Odyssey, Don Quixote and his windmills or Phileas Fogg travelling around the world. Historically, film has also played a part in broadening our horizons. We know New York through Woody Allen, the sound of the Trevi Fountain thanks to Anita Ekberg and we have passed through the streets of Notting Hill with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts.
Psychology distances itself from genetics and attributes the urge to travel to environmental, cultural and social factors.
Being transported to Paris on the big screen is convenient but cannot compare to climbing the Eiffel Tower and enjoying the experience first-hand. This feeling is even stronger for those for whom the word “tourist” does not do them justice; those for whom travelling the world is a philosophy of life. In 2011, Walter Chang decided to leave his job in New York, grab hold of his passport and visit 60 countries. He has danced at the Burning Man festival, travelled through the desert in Namibia and scaled Everest. “One year became two. Two became three. Continual travel made me feel as though I was getting hooked on a drug” says Chang. The explanation for this addictive feeling might be found in genetics, specifically in a variant of the DRD4 gene, which is involved in regulating dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is also linked to falling in love.
Only 20% of the population could posess the 7R variant.
A genetic study in 1999 directed by Chuansheng Chen of the University of California discovered that the DRD4-7R derivative is more common in migratory cultures than in those that remain settled.
Kenneth Kidd formed part of the team that discovered DRD4-7R.
In 2011, another broader study confirmed the idea that the 7R gene is more likely to be found in populations whose ancestors had covered longer distances in their migrations from Africa. Recently the 7R gene has been the focus of the academic community, to be re-named as the ‘wanderlust’ gene.
For Australians, ‘walkabout’ means disconnecting from the stress of daily life.
Charles Rotimi, Director of the Centre for Research on Genomic and Global Health of the NIH (National Institutes of Health) says that the wanderlust gene is associated with a passion for travel. “When humans arrive at new destinations, they love sharing their DNA and thereby continue to spread their human genetic material”.
Only 20% of the population could posess the 7R variant, although geneticists do not unanimously agree on its value. Is it possible for one single gene to be the cause of our hunger to explore? Could it be true that our desire to travel to Mars is due to the fact that our own planet has become too small for us? Until science can put these doubts to rest, when we plan our next trip, we’ll be wondering if it’s the result of ‘wanderlust.’