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Palm Revelations

Last week, I had my palm read for the first time.

I was spending the day with scientists who study the microscopic bugs living on our skin. (It’s actually not as creepy or smelly as you might think.) One of the researchers, a young and energetic dermatologist, was giving me the grand tour of the lab when I happened to mention that my sister had eczema — an itchy red rash — when we were growing up. Then, right in the middle of a long, sterile corridor, the doctor suddenly stopped and demanded my hand.

Before I knew what was happening, she was pointing to the edge of my palm, underneath the thumb. “Yep, you have hyperlinearity,” she said. Before I could even process the frightening sound of the word, she showed me her palm and said, “See, I have it too.”

I had no idea what she was talking about. Her palm, and more importantly, my palm, looked just fine. But then she pointed out all of her tiny, parallel skin lines — many more, she said, than is normal.

Then, still cheery, she said the lines mean she probably carries a particular mutation in filaggrin — a gene that makes a key protein in the top layer of skin.

“So that means I have it, too?” I said, weakly.

“You probably do!” she said.

She clearly wasn’t concerned, and so I decided I would worry about it later. When later came, I discovered that the filaggrin glitch is not all that innocuous.

In 2006, British researchers found that about 9 percent of people of European descent carry one of two filaggrin mutations, and that this group is far more likely than non-carriers to have eczema and the asthma that often goes with it. The next year, the same team did a much more fine-grained analysis of the filaggrin gene, and turned up a slew of additional mutations that are associated with eczema and asthma.

Before these studies, most people had thought that eczema stems from an immunological reaction to some kind of allergen. But the filaggrin findings suggested to some researchers (including my perky dermatologist) that the disease is caused partly by microbes. The loss of filaggrin from the skin, they say, could affect the mix of bacteria that can thrive there.

I’ve learned two simple lessons from this ordeal. One: if you have hyperlinearity, you may have a genetic predisposition to eczema and asthma. Two: Palm readings are never a good idea, even if your seer is wearing a white coat.

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Photo courtesy of moophisto, via Flickr

This post was originally published on The Last Word on Nothing