Thursday, April 3, 2014

Black of Hair: The Genetics of Westeros

It's back! SundaySundaySunday!

*Fangirl scream!*

Are you a Game of Thrones fan? I certainly hope so. We'll have so much more to talk about that way. I've been squirreling this topic away for a while now, but with the return of the show I thought I'd air it out. If you are a fan of the books and the show then you'll know that amongst the plethora of characters in Westeros there are some rather dubious things going on. This is where I yell SPOILER ALERT in the hopes that I won't ruin the surprises for the unsuspecting. You've been warned.

Westeros doesn't exactly have genetic profiling, but there are some features that don't really need it so much (ahem...all those blond Lannisters). Although, considering the protection and money you get from being a Lannister, the importance of being related to the Targaryens, and if you are a child of Robert Baratheon, it is probably good to know your genetic make up a bit better.

Way back in Season 1, Eddard "Ned" Stark started investigating the death of Lord Jon Arryn. This led him to The Lineages and Histories of the Great Houses of the Seven Kingdoms, an old book detailing the sigils, lineages, and appearances of the members of each noble House. This ultimately lethal path culminates in three simple words: "Black of hair..." Words that not only spelled out death for Ned but also led to the demise of most of his relatives. Ned was actually very clever, taking those words and employing the same logic behind those lovely Punnet Squares we all had to learn in biology class, drawing conclusions about Baratheon and Lannister genetics. A genotype from phenotype approach, if you will.



In the above comic, we are assuming that Robert was homozygous dominant (BB) for black hair. Had there been a relative that passed on a recessive blond hair allele (b) to him then he would be heterozygous (Bb) for the hair color trait. As a heterozygote, Robert would have black hair, but each of his children from a homozygous recessive (bb) mother would have a 2 in 4 chance of being blond. It is important to point out that this fifty percent chance is applied to each child independently, not that half of his children would be blond.

When it comes to an evidence-based conclusion, Ned didn't exactly have a large sample size. Considering Robert's philandering ways, the number of children produced was most certainly very large. But, Ned only looked at Cersei's children (Joffrey, Tommen, and Myrcella...all blond), the story of Cersei's first child (deceased...black hair), Gendry (black haired bastard of Robert by a tavern wench - her hair color unknown), and (sorta) Barra (bastard child by Mhaegan - a blond - of Petyr Baelish's employ). If Robert was homozygous dominant (BB) and the mother of each of his children was homozygous recessive (bb) then 100 percent of his children would be heterozygous (Bb) and black haired.

That said, Ned did have a good source in the Lineages and Histories book that describes all members of House Baratheon as "black of hair," except for the "golden headed" Joffrey (some minor TV vs. book differences here, but that lead to the same conclusions on my and Ned's part). By all members, I'm assuming this counts siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Had there been a blond in there somewhere it would have given more credence to the heterozygous argument.

For the sake of length, and the fact that I really just wanted to post that funny little comic, I kept things simple. Genetics is oh-so-much-more complicated. If you want to read more about the genetics of Westeros then I'll draw your attention to two very well written articles over at Mad Art Lab:

The first nicely lays out the argument that "after enough generations of marrying into families like Lannister and Targaryen, we would expect some of the Baratheon kids to have blond hair, but they don't. That doesn't sound like Mendelian inheritance. What it does sound like is another phenomenon, called paramutation."

check out Genetics in Game of Thrones: "The Seed is Strong"

The next brings up many of the same points that I do. However, it spends more time asking what if you could look at the genes of the families? Essentially, what if we could give Robert, Cersei, Jamie, their children, etc. paternity tests? And how do you interpret the results?

check out Genetics in Game of Thrones: Forensics


And finally, for all you need to know about Game of Thrones check out the Game of Thrones Wiki
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