The rising numbers of children with autism could be a warning. Genetically, these children may be especially sensitive to some of the tens of thousands of pollutants in our environment.

According to Discover magazine, autism researchers have begun paying attention to the digestive and immune disturbances that accompany the personality aberrations of autism. Autism is probably connected to genetics. That’s “genetics,” not “a gene.” And autism is probably connected to environment. Like most genetic phenomena, it’s a combination of nature and nurture.

Genes often work in teams, like this: All your cells need a certain anti-oxidant molecule. In each cell, gene 1 in the team manufactures the first part of the anti-oxidant molecule. Then gene 2 in the team takes the first part of the anti-oxidant and adds a second part. Then gene 3 adds a third part, and so on until a final gene completes the job. When the anti-oxidant molecule—let’s call it glutathione—is finished, it can start detoxifying poisonous oxygen radicals that result from daily cell work.

Now let’s suppose that one of the genes in the glutathione team is handicapped. Glutathione production slows down. Or the glutathione is defective. Either way, crowds of oxygen radicals accumulate and interfere with cell functions. Lots of different kinds of cells suffer when this happens: digestive cells, immune cells, and brain cells, just to name a few.

One form of suffering brought on by this excess of oxygen radicals has to do with the way cells repair damage from allergens or pollutants. In addition to the gene team that makes glutathione, each cell has teams of repair genes. A handicapped gene in a repair team may become even more handicapped when it is stressed by the poisonous accumulation of oxygen radicals. So repair slows down. When your cells have unrepaired damage, they send out calls for help, and the first thing your body does is mount a defense that includes inflammation. If the damage remains unrepaired, the inflammation may become chronic: you get chronic digestive problems, chronic allergic problems, and chronic inflammation of the brain.

So here and there a handicapped glutathione gene plus a handicapped repair gene might lead to what we call autism. And the rising number of kids with autism might be an indication of what can happen to human beings in a polluted environment.

Author's Bio: 

Julie Simon Lakehomer is writing a book about DNA. The book tells the life stories of thirteen geneticists, eager to ferret out the secrets of inheritance. These researchers committed themselves to conversation with the DNA universe until, revelation by revelation, they transformed what was known about heredity.

Julie has a B.A. from The University of Chicago, and an M.S from the University of Illinois at Chicago. For 24 years, she taught science and math in Chicago area middle and high schools During her fiction period, a number of her short stories were published, including “Prophecy,” which won first prize in the Taproot Literary Review 1994 Contest, and “Until You Get It Right,” which appeared in the Fall 1995 edition of Sou’Wester. Recently her first science article, “A New Look at Mendel,” appeared in the Summer 2007 edition of The Journal of the Washington Academy of Science. More of her articles appear on her website, “The Pursuit of Wonder” at

Julie is active in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Science Teachers Association, the Association of Women in Science, Graduate Women in Science, the National Education Association, and the International Women’s Writing Guild.