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Expertise of UW’s Sánchez featured in documentary ‘Survival of the Fabulous’

April 14, 2014
by Todd Finkelmeyer

It’s only a few minutes into an interview with Francisco J. Sánchez, and the assistant professor with the Department of Counseling Psychology has already rattled off several words that many have likely heard during a biology class -– but which some of us would struggle to properly explain on a pop quiz.

He speaks of “DNA expression” and “transcription.” He notes “hormonal environments” and “biochemical modifications.” He mentions “zygotes” and something called “epigenetics.”

Francisco SanchezSánchez arrived on the UW-Madison campus in the fall of 2012 after spending eight years with the Department of Human Genetics and the Center for Gender-Based Biology at the UCLA School of Medicine. For nearly a decade now, he has collaborated on research investigating the biological basis for sexual orientation and gender identity.

But moving forward, Sánchez explains that as a counseling psychologist, much of his focus at UW-Madison will be on helping interpret biological studies and relaying information that can be more easily understood both by those who work in clinical settings, and their patients.

“Patients, whether it’s a gay man or a person who is transgender, will often wonder, ‘Why am I like this?’ ” says Sánchez. “I’d like to translate some of this complex research to help people better understand it.”

This past year, Sánchez was given the unique opportunity to do just that as his expertise was highlighted on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s “The Nature of Things” program in late November. This particular episode featured a documentary titled “Survival of the Fabulous.” (The documentary is now available via YouTube.) It featured filmmaker Bryce Sage speaking with researchers across the globe in an attempt to learn about the biological and genetic basis for Sage being gay.  In particular, Sage speaks with a range of researchers conducting groundbreaking work in genetics and psychology to shed light on why homosexuality has survived, even though it’s a trait that seems to prevent reproduction.

Survival of the Fabulous home pageDuring one segment of the documentary, Sage spends time visiting with those at the Center for Gender-Based Biology, including director Eric Vilain, who explains how the lab is recruiting identical twins – one of whom is gay and one of whom is straight -– to better understand why there are differences in their sexual orientation even though they are so alike genetically.

While sitting in his office in the Education Building in the weeks prior to the airing of the documentary, Sánchez explained how most, if not all, of our traits are influenced by our genetic makeup. This includes complex behavior traits such as sexual orientation. His previous work on this topic focused on epigenetics -– or the study of biochemical modifications to the DNA that affect how genes are expressed.

In other words, says Sánchez, even though identical twins share the same DNA, after the zygote spits into two embryos each twin will likely have unique exposure to the surrounding environment.  This is especially true, he adds, if the twins developed in separate amniotic sacs. It’s this unique exposure that may lead to epigenetic alterations that modify gene expression but not the underlying DNA, explains Sánchez.

In the documentary that aired, Sánchez explains how the lab he worked in at UCLA collects saliva from two identical twins and then has their DNA examined to see how it might differ.

“With twins, even though they are built off the same exact DNA blueprint, there are different events that may have occurred to each twin that can affect how the DNA is then modified and expressed later on,” Sánchez says in the documentary.

Sage then asks: “If I understand right, there could be some factors that could be turning on the genes that predispose these guys to being gay?”

Sánchez responds: “Right. If you want to think of it as a row of light switches, most of the time those switches are turned on or off in the same directions. But, for whatever reason, perhaps in one twin a few switches are in the opposite direction.”

The documentary, which currently is only available for online viewing to those who live in Canada, notes that although it’s unclear what environmental factors lead to these epigenetic differences, Vilain and Sánchez “maintain these differences almost certainly originate within the hormonal soup of the womb, not in the external environment in which each twin grows up.”

“When it comes to the ‘Nature vs. Nurture debate,’ it’s not one or the other, but the interaction of the two,” Sánchez says in the documentary. “So even though you may have been given a certain type of biology, it’s still under the influence of the environment.”

All told, “Survival of the Fabulous” attempts to put to rest for good the argument that “homosexuality is a lifestyle choice.”

Ask Sánchez if there is one thing he wishes more people would understand it’s that there is a biological basis for sexuality and sexual attraction.

“Having worked in the biological sciences, I never encountered a biologist who questioned that sexual behavior had a biological basis throughout the animal kingdom,” says Sánchez. “If it is only genetic, then both twins should be gay or they should be ‘straight.’ It all has more to do with biochemical or hormonal factors during early development versus how one is treated at home or in school.”
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