Oral fixation

This morning I was on my back counting dots in the ceiling tile while a pleasant woman repeatedly asked me to turn my head toward her and Sheryl Crow quietly insisted that a change would do me good. (Ach, Honey, don’t I know it.) Alas, it’s not what you’re thinking. As the pleasant woman poked and prodded my fork-tender gums with what I swear is the same device we used to eviscerate fetal pigs back in freshman biology lab, I tried not to flinch or, at the very least, tried to ignore the tears running down my cheeks.

Our species may have undergone a spectacular makeover since its knuckle-dragging origins, and our phenotypes may change dramatically during our brief time on this mortal coil*, but I swear to Jesus Haploid Christ that I hate going to the dentist just as much as I did in 1972.

As the feeling left my lower extremities and the pleasant woman continued violating the Geneva Convention in 11 ways, stopping only to Hoover the blood and saliva from the recesses of my mouth, I tried to console myself with the idea that next month (right, George?), when George Church presents me with my genome sequence, I will somehow be vindicated. There amongst my motley collection of A’s, T’s, G’s and C’s will be evidence that the disaster that is my mouth is not my fault.

The gum disease, the infections that have led to periodic root canals and implants, the chips and cracks that make my oral cavity indistinguishable from that of a Dickensian orphan–all will be revealed to have a genetic basis. I mean, it stands to reason that I must have a humoral immune defect or mutations affecting my periodontal tissues. Or some other pernicious host factor that renders me susceptible to tooth decay or worse. Must be, right? The PGP may not get much from my spartan medical records, I thought, but at the risk of immodesty, I am a dental genomicist’s dream: my paper trail of oral surgery, orthodontia and good old-fashioned fillings and crowns is a mile long. (Not that I’ll let any research-minded dentists anywhere near me…)

When the bi-annual ordeal finally ended and I extricated myself from the chair, I went across the street for what I thought was a richly deserved coffee and chocolate chip scone. It was then, bathed in warm glucose, that the voice of the genome du jour entered my head. “…you cannot define a life or any life based on DNA alone,” he writes in his forthcoming book. “An organism’s environment is ultimately as unique as its genetic code.”

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