Wanted: thrill seekers

The do-it-yourself quest for the adventure gene

Photo’s by Andrew TsoOne in five people has adventurousness in their genes. "Those people tend to be more impulsive, more extravert and take bigger risks."

By Frank Provoost

Are audiences at pop festivals more adventurous by nature than the average Dutch person? Researchers at the Leiden University Medical Centre arranged DNA tests for visitors at the Lowlands festival.
Mare took part and waited – with bated breath and recalling our own kicks – for the results.

(Nederlandse versie hier)
Leiden, 10 September 2015. At long last! I’ve been staring at my inbox for three weeks, with no luck. But here it is: the long-awaited email from the Leiden University Medical Centre. Now I’ll find out whether I have the DRD4-7R gene. “Dear Participant”, writes physician-researcher Karin van der Tuin. “You will find your personal results of the DNA test below. No rights may be derived from the results and unfortunately it is not possible to correspond with us about the results…”

KICKS WORTH NIX (1) The French Alps, 2010. Only a few seconds ago, my brother and I were racing about through the powdery, virgin snow on our snowboards. No skidding and crashing on the busy ski run with its rock-hard furrows for us. We had turned off it as soon as we could to be the first to leave prints in the white no man’s land. However, this time a group of trees blocks our view and we have to brake hard – to our huge relief. As the swirling snowflakes settle, we see a gaping abyss. Cautiously, we peer over the edge, straight down a sheer drop of at least thirty metres with dry rocks below. We decide to walk back, sinking waist-deep into the snow at each step.

Lowlands festival, 21 August 2015. “CHEW ON THE INSIDE OF YOUR CHEEK!” Inge Loonen, a PhD student, shouts to make herself heard above the thudding beats from the tent next door. I obey unquestioningly and scrape my teeth against my cheeks, all in the name of science. You see, I am one of a select group of guinea pigs who are voluntarily undergoing tests, not in a lab but at Lowlands.
In the “Oh Mega!” tent, an ad hoc team of students, doctors and doctoral candidates from Leiden University Medical’s Centre Clinical Genetics department is working hard to collect as much genetic material as possible. They are helping visitors to isolate their own DNA, either to put in pendants to wear round their necks or to donate to the study.
The hypothesis behind it is: festival-goers are inherently more adventurous than the average audience, which should be visible in the DNA due to the presence of the “adventure” or “thrill-seeking gene”, also known as DRD4-7R.
Normally speaking, one in five people has adventurousness in their genes, explains Karin van der Tuin, who set up the project. “Those people tend to be more impulsive, more extravert and take bigger risks.” Intern Gido Gravesteijn points to a large poster that explains the experiment. “DRD4-7R is a dopamine receptor. The ‘7R’ stands for: seven repeats. The repeats produce a longer gene and consequently carriers need more dopamine before they’ve had enough or feel a kick.”

KICKS WORTH NIX (2) Den Bosch, Willem II concert hall, 1993. What should be a glorious moment in my punk-rock career is doomed before it can happen. At a concert by Californian surf-punks Pennywise, I scramble onto the stage to stage dive for the first time in my life. But… I get stuck. Just as I prepare to take a run, the guitar player, Fletcher, starts backwards and I’m squashed between his sweaty, 120-kilo body and an enormously heavy amplifier emitting as many decibels. For a few seconds, I’m trapped between them before I escape and throw myself into the churning mosh pit.

Lowlands, 21 August. “NOW RINSE YOUR MOUTH WITH SALTWATER AND SPIT INTO THIS TEST TUBE!” I manage to drool genetic material on my jeans. Luckily, there’s some left to spit in the test tube. “NOW ADD TWO DROPS OF LENSE CLEANER AND ONE DROP OF WASHING-UP LIQUID”, yells Loonen. “SHAKE IT CAREFULLY TO BREAK DOWN THE CELL MEMBRANE AND RELEASE THE DNA!” “This is the kitchen-sink method” says Van der Tuin. The advantage is that it’s more accessible. The disadvantage is that the samples are often contaminated. “You really shouldn’t eat or drink anything beforehand, but that’s obviously not going to work here. We sometimes have to stop people gulping beer before they start but I haven’t noticed anyone who’s really sloshed.”
The researchers want to know if the test subjects think they have the “adventure gene”. “Just now, we had an elderly man who was quite sure he wasn’t a carrier”, Gravesteijn laughs. “When I asked him if he ever did anything exciting he produced a whole list: parachute jumps, bungee jumps, crossing the dessert in a jeep!”

KICKS WORTH NIX (3) Cape Town, August 1999. At first light, my German flatmate and surf buddy Fabienne and I paddle out to sea. Everything is perfect: the rising sun, the clear blue sky, the view of Table Mountain, the perfect waves rolling onto the beach one after another. And yet… A week ago, an acquaintance showed us pictures of this heavenly spot, Bloubergstrand, and there was no mistaking it: a grey fin cut through the deep blue of the ocean. I sit on my surf board dangling my feet in the water and wondering how appetising I look from below. SPLASHHHHHHHHHH! Right next to me, the sea seems to explode and I fall off my board in shock. When I resurface, I come face to face with a seal.

Lowlands, 21 August. “We have to move out every evening at six”, says Van der Tuin. “That’s when they turn the tent into a kind of gay bar.” The temporary do-it-yourself lab is replaced by dancing drag queens and transvestites. That’s the way things work at pop festivals, where bands, DJs, writers, silent discos, cinemas and beer tents are constantly competing for attention. And the scientists had to fight for a spot too, says Van der Tuin. “150 research applications were submitted, of which Lowlands selected ten.”
It’s the same rat race she faces with her doctoral research into a genetic predisposition for endocrine tumours. “There are fewer than ten new cases of some specific types per year in the Netherlands, and my results will not produce a new drug within five years, so major grant providers lose interest. It feels strange and not very scientific to go begging from the public, but maybe I’ll have to, because if I don’t get a grant, I can’t finish my PhD and there’ll be no one at all to help that group of patients.”
If she is forced to try crowd-funding, she hopes to profit from the growing interest in genetics. For now, at least, she is happy with the volunteers. “We’re really busy: the queue was already long at noon.”
It’s time for the final stage. Student Anna Pagan hands me a bottle of ethanol and asks me to add a few millilitres to my genetic mixture. “THE DNA MOLECULES WON’T DISSOLVE IN IT SO THEY ARE VISIBLE.” I can indeed distinguish a few white flakes clumped together. I’m supposed to spoon them out with a spatula and put them in a smaller tube, to which Pagan attaches a numbered label. Then she puts my DNA in the fridge. I’m number 54. So that was that. Now all I have to do is wait.

KICKS WORTH NIX (4) Oostburg, June 1995. Precisely one week ago I called an ambulance when a friend landed strangely on his skateboard and broke his ankle. And now I’m the one on the tarmac with my foot at the same weird angle. I can’t feel any pain, so I calmly call to my friends that I’ve broken my leg. They think I’m messing with them and carry on skating.

Leiden University Medical Centre research building, 26 August. There isn’t a drag queen in sight in the sterile LUMC laboratories. “I’m sorry, there aren’t any results either”, says Van der Tuin. “We collected four hundred samples and handed out six hundred pendants, but a lot of the samples are contaminated.” And it takes time to clear them. “We hope to get them finished this week, but I can’t promise.”
Would my version have the seven repeats? The questionnaire I had to fill in at Lowlands has given me reason to think otherwise. I might not be afraid of a little adrenaline, but I don’t think I’m impulsive. I’m prefer harmony to fights, I suppose I often avoid taking risks and have never (no, really, never) tried hard drugs. And besides, I gave up skating (lack of talent) and stage diving (too much trouble). That’s why, in the end, I ticked “no” on the form.
And yet… why do I feel the need to ride powder when I know that there’s a greater risk of avalanches? And why do I check the wave height and wind direction three times a day, hurling myself into the sea if the Met Office gives off a code-red warning, even if it’s freezing? And what if I have “it”? So what? Am I an out-of-control daredevil?
Van der Tuin reassures me. “It’s not just the gene. As is often the case with genetics, there are several factors at play here. Suppose you have a gift for sports: of course, it’s partly hereditary, but how good you are also depends on your environment and the age you started.” For that matter, the Lowlands population was rather convinced of their hereditary predisposition for adventure, she informs me. “Fifty per cent thought they had the gene – I think that figure might be a bit high.”

Leiden, 10 September. Do I have it or not? The question has been bugging me, but finally the email arrives to put me out of my misery. There it is, in black and white: “We have not found the “adventure gene” in your sample.” And what about my fellow Lowlanders? Van der Tuin replies: “Unfortunately, the quality of the DNA in about half the samples was too poor to produce reliable results. We need to check whether that is an arbitrary group first and whether the remaining results are representative random survey of our test population.”
And what about the ones whose DNA was alright? “I must honestly confess that I haven’t observed an overwhelming majority of “adventure genes”. But that doesn’t have to mean anything: perhaps those DRD4-7R-versions are more sensitive and were destroyed during the study. We’ll be investigating that in the coming months.”
So: to be continued. I’m off to check for big waves.

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Wanted: thrill seekers

Are audiences at pop festivals more adventurous by nature than the average Dutch person? …