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Science with Dan: Inbreeding continues to be problem for Amish

In a culture where sex is king, it takes something of great significance to be viewed as taboo and immoral. “Stigma” is a label that is becoming less and less common as our society grows more accepting at a seemingly daily rate. Today, the only stigmas that stick out like a sore thumb on the surface tend to be related to drugs, alcoholism and physical abuse, among others. One that is of much higher importance, yet rarely comes to mind and is hardly ever discussed, is the act of inbreeding in humans. We tend to think of inbreeding as something savage that rarely occurs and when it does, it happens in places on the other end of the globe or by heinous pedophiles. The truth of the matter is that this practice is all too common and you don’t have to travel far from home or even your dorm to find examples in the flesh.

Before I proceed, in order to understand where I am going with this, one must be familiar with an evolutionary concept known as the “Founder Effect.” This idea implies that genetic variation is lost when a new population is formed by a small group of initial “founders” that breaks away from an original, much larger population. Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana have the largest populations of the Amish in America. They are very kind, gentle and hardworking people that tend to keep to themselves and shy away from the outside world. This communal practice in and of itself is very limiting genetically by dissociating their mating pool and keeping the possibility of diversification to a minimum. This, in combination with the initial Founder Effect, has led to an absurdly disproportional number of incidences of some of the rarest genetic and autoimmune disorders known to man. For a population of their relatively small size, 165,000 in total, it would be impossible to project numbers anywhere near the ballpark that their communities are experiencing in regards to these mutations.

One of the rarest known genetic disorders, Cohen Syndrome, has fewer than 100 cases currently reported across the globe. Somewhere in the range of 20 to 30 of the cases can be found in Ohio’s Amish country. This condition causes development to be delayed, mental retardation, progressive nearsightedness, retinal dystrophy, weak muscle tone and a large range of motion in the joints known as hypermobility. There are also very significant facial features associated that include thick hair and eyebrows, downward-slanted wave-shaped eyes, large upper frontal teeth and a shortened area between the nose and the upper lip.

The lack of genetic diversification causing an increasing number of genes to become homozygous leads to disasters at the genotypic level when the traits that are being used are selectively undesirable in relation to the life-altering and tragic mutations that affect both the offspring and the family unit that must provide care.

The Amish are a very important community with a culture rich in history. It is vital that measures be taken to help prevent and ultimately end these high incidences of genetic mutations.

Dan Maloney is a sophomore studying biological science and a columnist for The Post. Do you know something that Dan should learn about? Email him at

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