Friday, October 31, 2008

Biochemistry of Halloween: Installment 1

By Kristopher Hite

"A Candle in the Dark"

Teeth lengthened by receding gums glow in the shaded valleys of the Carpathian basin. The genetic milieu of the Visigoths, Huns, Carpians, and Slavic peoples have swirled over centuries as granite crags pushed populations into shallow gene pools. A ghoulish thing of legend emerged from Transylvania and has since soaked literature and pop-culture with a reddish froth. Science and medicine have given us reason not to fear for our necks in a story that is truly stranger than fiction...

The glowing teeth mentioned earlier occur because of an accumulation of light sensitive molecules called porphyrins in victims of a rare genetic disease. Porphyria affects one of the steps in heme production. A heme is the chemical group that holds iron atoms in their proper position in hemoglobin (the protein of blood). The name "porphyria" came from the Greek words for purple and pigment. Victims of this disease have an uncanny similarity to historical descriptions of vampires and phenotypes of this disease have been suggested as possible explanation for the origin of vampire legends.

Mal-formed porphyrin molecules accumulate in affected people's skin and teeth. When activated by light these molecules activate oxygen molecules into destructive radicals that can wreak havoc on surrounding tissue. When exposed to light individuals appear to be burned with caustic lesions left on their skin. Enter: Nosferatu's pale countenance shrieking in terror as the sun rises.

Though no blood-lust is reported by sufferers some historians speculate that drinking the blood of animals may have been attempted as a folk remedy in treating the disease. It has since been proven that the heme molecule is in fact robust enough to survive digestion indicating that replenishing mal-formed blood molecules by drinking blood may indeed help those that happen to exhibit anemia in conjunction with porphyria. When watching vampire movies the whole garlic premise never made any sense to me. Why couldn't you use mushrooms, or cinnamon, or toothbrushes to scare away vampires? What was it about garlic. With the Porphyria hypothesis in mind it makes sense however. Garlic has vasso-dilator chemicals and is reported to exacerbate the affects of porphyria. Sufferers may have learned to avoid it indeed!

In the genetically secluded valleys of Transylvania it is not hard to imagine disorders like these occurring more than expected in a diverse population. Before the renaissance and the spread of the scientific revolution a vampire myth may have grown from accounts of these individuals with their glowing long teeth, aversion to sun and garlic, and maybe even sucking blood in the night!

Thanks Nick for your help with this!!! stay tuned for the next installment of the Biochemistry of Halloween when we talk about Haitian Zombies!

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