A fundamentalist dilemma - gay and lesbian mice

How will the homophobes greet this latest article in Nature describing a pheromone "switch" in mice that when inactivated - even in adult mice - appears to change their sexual orientation?

Briefly let's go over what the researchers found.

Mice that lacked a gene named Trpc, responsible for encoding an ion channel in the vomeronasal organ, were previously discovered to have indiscriminant mating patterns among males. In other words, the boys would try to mount anything that moved, male or female. It was thought that mice, which don't exactly look at girly mags, can probably only distinguish between boys and girls by smell - so damage in this sense led to the inability to distinguish between male and female. The resulting mice weren't gay, they were just confused.

Now, this study shows that the Trpc gene has a similar effect in females, except that the girl mice start acting like males rather than females - mounting and trying to hump everything in sight. This suggests that not only is the gene needed for the pheromones that distinguish between boy and girl mice but that neuronal basis for male sexual behavior exists in female mice and is somehow normally suppressed. Further, if the vomeronasal organ is disabled in an adult mouse, the female-humping-anything-that-moves phenotype emerges - just like in the trpc knockout mice. This suggests that this is not a developmental process being altered. Instead, the female mice must have the basic circuitry of male sexual behavior intact, and for some reason screwing with pheromone signaling unmasks this natural pathway.

The question is, as a anti-gay homophobic crank, what can you do to distort the science to force it to conform to your world view that homosexuality is a choice of evil hellbound miscreants?

This is a tough problem because this study is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it suggests that sexual behaviors aren't necessarily determined developmentally, and that animals have the potential for male or female sexual behaviors whatever their sex. This has the potential to be exploited by the careful quote-miner to suggest that homosexuals have a choice - homosexual behavior is not ingrained and determined by the time you are born - both male and female sexual behaviors are present in all.

On the other hand, it still establishes a biological basis for sexual preference and again shows a potential genetic basis for a sexual behavior.

Very problematic. How ever shall this result be politicized to justify the bigotry of the homophobic mouth breathers?

Whatever they decide though, and don't doubt that someone will try to make hay out of such an interesting result, it will be irrelevant. In humans the vomeronasal organ is likely vestigial and probably has no role in sexuality, pheromone detection, or anything (that's a heckuva design job there). Certainly an interesting result, and who knows, maybe humans also have both male and female sexual circuitry present with different mechanisms controlling the switch. But it certainly isn't controlled by pheromones, and likely, we have a sufficiently different system in place that assumptions about human sexuality are premature.

More like this

I did some writing for my student newspaper on the biological basis of homosexuality. I contacted the school's Pride office for a comment, and surprisingly, they were somewhat ambivalent about it.

They said they were concerned if a clearcut biological basis for homosexuality was found, then certain groups would call it a "disease" in need of curing. So... there's the homophobic crank's defense, I guess?

So many people can't understand the fundamentalist mindset. It is quite easy to explain this: Meddling with nature is using Satan's destructive and evil power to distort and pervert God's wonderful creation.

I suppose this is consistent with PZ's hypothesis for the basis of homosexuality (that's it's a consequence of having two sexes). It makes sense - after all, sexual behaviour is far too complicated to be a single Y-linked trait or something simple like that.

I suppose katie has a point - for some people it will mean we're back at the "hormonal imbalance" explanation for homosexuality, and thus, it's a disease that can be cured.

The problem being if its even a *good idea* to cure it. There was an article recently on one science site where they studied deer population genetics and tried to determine why there are runts (which is potentially similar to having homosexuality too, since it has the same effect of not allowing breeding). The conclusion was that, if you need males to be X, Y and Z, then a female with the same traits would be, a) infertile, b) poor at producing milk, or c) any number of other things that would negatively effect their ability to raise young. By the same token, genes that produce a good female would produce equally undesirable males.

Put simply, *fixing* something like this may not be as simple as it looks, nor is it going to necessarily help the species genetically. It might actually make things worse in some cases.

Odd really. When they want things to be **too complex** for us to understand them, they would leap on one gene that did 10 different things, but when it *doesn't* benefit their radial views, *curing* some behavior they don't like **must** be as simple as fixing one single gene... Idiots, all of them!

But humans are higher animals, don't you know? Actually, it seems to me that fundamentalisms are systems of language that serve to simplify the world so that the weak & powerless can grab hold of some sense of meaning. What anthropologists have called "weapons of the weak." That is, the various fundamentalisms are elaborate & ritually encoded conspiracy theories.

If there is such a basis for homosexuality, then the scientists can detect it in utero...eventually...and give the parents the choice to abort.

Ya know, womans right to choose and all that!


Brady - I hope you're joking.
You sound like an anti-choicer: 'If women are allowed to abort then of course it follows that there will be women lining up to have abortions for shallow and selfish reasons'

Phil from Adelaide

What part of "lacking a gene," "impaired," "mutant" and "surgically removed" won't work?

Seriously, the bias is in stating that the pathway is "functional" if there's surgery, mutation, or otherwise deleting the control pathway that is actually most common - and better suited for reproduction - in nature.

Interesting that you ranted, though.

I've taken care of a couple of kids with androgen insensitivity. That's a real-life dilemma that would be better exploited, if you want to holler names ending in "mouth breathers." (There's a pun - a "straight" line - in that phrase if I ever saw one.)

If there is such a basis for homosexuality, then the scientists can detect it in utero...eventually...and give the parents the choice to abort.
Ya know, womans right to choose and all that!

A biological basis isn't necessarily congenital, but that aside, yes parents have the right to abort. For any reasons whatsoever. (With men the right is a bit moot, but I'd consider it a right nonetheless).

By Andrew Wade (not verified) on 21 Aug 2007 #permalink

At least one company thinks that the human vomeronasal organ (or is it the adjacent mucosa?) is sensitive enough to be a target for therapeutics, now in clinical trials:


"The term 'vomeropherin' refers to odorless substances that have a physiological or pharmacological effect as a consequence of binding to specific receptors in the human nasal passages and in the vomeronasal organ (VNO)....Pherin's intellectual property portfolio includes composition of matter (novel compounds) and methods of use patents covering over 1,000 vomeropherins, genes encoding vomeropherin receptors and pharmaceutical applications of vomeropherins."

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OMG!!! I am a Mouse breeder and stumbled across this article because I have a female lesbian mouse I hink this is just so funny! Bad for my breeding rate but I still love her!