School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences

News

9 Apr 2014

Prize for paper showing environment more important than genes for leg length

Two Loughborough University academics have been recognised for their ‘important’ work on how the environment is a more powerful force than genes in determining leg length and body proportions.

A paper by Professor Barry Bogin and Dr Maria Ines Varela-Silva received second prize in the ‘Reviews’ category of the Best Paper Award 2014 run by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Called ‘Leg Length, Body Proportion, and Health: A Review with a Note on Beauty’, it is a look at all the research done on the subject, including their own ground-breaking work from 2002 with the Maya people of Guatemala.

The paper, which has more than 140 references to fellow researchers’ work, is effectively a ‘library’ of the most important work done in this area.

The researchers, from the Centre for Global Health and Human Development, in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Science, submitted the paper in 2009. It was published a year later and they have just received news of the award.

“It was a total surprise, we are very proud,” said Barry, Professor of Biological Anthropology.

Dr Varela-Silva, a lecturer in human biology, said: “We did not realise how many people downloaded it and used it for their own research, which is very good.”

The judges said the article is an “…important review on human development and how it is programmed through the actions of Hox genes. Good correlation between anthropogenic measures and biology.”

Their research with the Maya built on previous work done with the Japanese which exploded the myth that genes determined leg length and body proportions.

But it went much further and revealed that Mayan children who escaped the poverty and civil war in Guatemala for a better life in America showed ‘instantaneous’ increase in height.

The Maya are a small people. The average size of a Mayan man is now 5ft 3in compared to 5ft 7in at their peak prior to the Conquest by Europeans, a woman 4ft 7in compared to 5ft 2in in the past.

But Professor Bogin and Dr Varela-Silva found out that Maya children aged up to 12 who had moved to Florida were on average 11cm (4.3in) taller than their brothers and sisters back home – and most of that growth was in their legs.

Professor Bogin said: “Even sisters and brothers born in the US showed a big increase in height right away.

“And the longer they were in the US the bigger the difference with their brothers and sisters in Guatemala. It turned out that 70 per cent of that height increase was in their legs.

“We knew that as environments improved legs got longer in proportion to people’s height.

“We found that this was instantaneous and that there could be no genetic explanation because we were talking about kids from the same families.

“So whatever was holding back growth in Guatemala was released.

“What is it? It’s clean drinking water, better food. They went to school where they get breakfast and lunch, and had vaccinations.

“This is a tremendous difference to Guatemala where they had been impoverished and subjected to a civil war.

“All those things, physical and psychological, put the brakes on growth. Take those brakes away and… they pop right up.”

Dr Varela-Silva said the Maya children showed the ‘biggest change in growth in less than a decade ever reported.’

She said genes could be turned on and off by environmental factors. “The Maya were regarded as the pygmies of Latin America because that was politically convenient. “That’s good for the people in power who don’t want to take care of those poor people.

“It’s about political power, better living conditions, economic and educational imbalance. It’s changeable.”

Legs, said Professor Bogin, are also considered a thing of beauty, especially in Europe.

He said Edmund Burke, the 18th century British philosopher and statesmen, once wrote that even short legs were ‘capable of beauty’.

But Professor Bogin said that the “epidemiological evidence finds them to be a risk for health.”

For further information about The Maya Project, visit The Maya Project website at: http://mayaproject.org.uk/