Friends Closer Than Family? In Reality, They Very Well Could Be

Have some really good friends?  You may be closer to them than you think.

A new study has found that we may share genes with our friends.  A genome-wide analysis has shown that we share some genetic similarities with our friends, according to

A study from the University of California, San Diego, and Yale University finds that friends who are not biologically related still resemble each other genetically.

Hmm.  I wonder how good a friend you have to be?  Anyway. . .

"We have more DNA in common with the people we pick as friends than we do with strangers in the same population," the Web site quotes study coauthor James Fowler, professor of medical genetics and political science at UC San Diego.

The study is a genome-wide analysis of nearly 1.5 million markers of gene variation, and relies on data from the Framingham Heart Study.  The researchers focused on 1,932 unique subjects and compared pairs of unrelated friends against pairs of unrelated strangers. The same people, who were neither kin nor spouses, were used in both types of samples. The only thing that differed between them was their social relationship.

Not surprisingly, my initial assumption -- that we pick people like us, and so, it's not a big stretch to think we might be genetically connected -- was wrong.

 The findings prove it's not because of people’s tendency to befriend those of similar ethnic backgrounds. Because all the subjects, friends and not, were drawn from the same population for the study, and controlled for ancestry, the observed genetics go beyond what you would expect to find among people of shared heritage – these results are “not of ancestry,” Fowler said.

So how related are we?  On average, the researchers found, about as “related” as fourth cousins or people who share great-great-great grandparents. That translates to about 1 percent of our genes.

“One percent may not sound like much to the layperson,” newswise quotes other coauthor Nicholas Christakis, professor of sociology, evolutionary biology, and medicine at Yale.  “But to geneticists it is a significant number. And how remarkable: Most people don’t even know who their fourth cousins are! Yet we are somehow -- among many, many possibilities -- managing to select as friends the people who resemble our kin.”

Now in my case, that wouldn't be so good.  I don't speak to my brother or sister, which is very sad, but unfortunately been the case for many years.  Do I have friends like them?  I wouldn't say so.  My sister, an accountant, is very practical and literal, while I am not, at all.  And my brother?  He's lived a pretty fun, relatively irresponsible life, lucky enough to marry a woman who runs a very successful business, and lives the high life, which I also did not.   So maybe I'm the one who proves the theory?

It is also the case that some traits only work if your friend also has them, Fowler said.

But here's the really interesting part.  How are we most similar?  In the sense of smell, the scientists say.

So why is this? It could be, Fowler said, that our sense of smell draws us to similar environments. It is not hard to imagine that people who like the scent of coffee, for example, hang out at cafes more and so meet and befriend each other. But the researchers suspect there is more to the story than that.

Another interesting finding was that friends are relatively more dissimilar in their genetic protection against various diseases. So if your friend gets the flu, stay away!

But here's maybe the biggest benefit.  The research found that humans are "metagenomic."  Say what?  It simply means that the microbes in our body benefit not just us but also the people who surround us. "It seems that our fitness depends not only on our own genetic constitutions, but also on the genetic constitutions of our friends," says Christakis.

I've learned to make friends my family, so maybe it's something I knew intuitively.  I'm lucky to have really good friends, who stood by me twice in cancer diagnoses, take care of my son like their own, and, best of all, notice when I lose weight!

Would I like to have my family of origin in my life?  Of course.  But it's most likely not going to happen.  My husband, son and I have, probably as a result, formed a tight bond that, while it doesn't wall out the world, does protect us and hold us together when the going gets tough.

But I have an even better solution.  Hey, when the going gets tough, I go shopping.



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