Ostrava, an industrial hub in the Northeast of the Czech Republic, is the country's third largest city (300,000). It's full of coal mines and steel mills. ArcelorMittal is the world's largest steel producer and bought a major facility there. The air contains products of a chemical plant and some junk blown from the nearby Poland, too. The history of hardcore pollution in the region goes back to the 19th century.
Just to be sure, we're talking about real toxins, not bogus pollution like CO2. The air often contains things like benzo(a)pyrene, a carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, in concentrations severely (e.g. by 700%) exceeding the allowed maxima.
Yesterday I learned something I should have heard about in late 2011 but I had to miss it. But let me get to the point. One should expect that with this much benzo(a)pyrene, people in Ostrava will get many more tumors than those in Prague, for example. But they didn't. The life expectancy seems to be a bit lower in Ostrava but this difference seems to be associated with cardiovascular diseases. A paradox.
The first word in the title leaked the resolution to the paradox. Many/most people in Ostrava developed a special mutation of a gene whose task is the correction of errors in the DNA. The gene used to be known as XRCC5. The Ostrava folks carry a more active version of this gene.
This mutation seems a bit comical, like a Nature's clever and witty trick, and the idea of such a mutation closely resembles the theme of the 1988 movie by later famous film director Mr Jan Svěrák, The Oil Gobblers (3 parts), about a new (fictitious) species that evolved in dirty environments and that really loves to drink and eat petroleum and various other yummy things.
The idea of such a mutation may sound funny but Nature seriously works like that!
The mutation has some negative side effects – it makes one's aging process a bit faster and may speed up the cardiovascular diseases which is why the people with this mutated gene have a lower life expectancy, by about 2 years, but this is probably still a smaller reduction of the life expectancy than what the benzo(a)pyrene would steal from an unmutated human being.
You will probably agree that XRCC5 isn't a catchy name. Well-known Czechia's songmaker Mr Jaromír Nohavica who lives in the region and possibly has the mutation as well has invented a more colorful name for the mutation – Ostragene (in Czech, it's simply "Ostragen"). Needless to say, this word constructed by the combination of the words "Ostrava" and "gene" sounds sexy also because it is so similar to "estrogen". The poet was successful and everyone, including the medical experts, began to use this terminology.
A few years ago, I was lucky to be in Nice and to hear the world's leading defenders of the Intelligent Design paradigm advocating their framework to explain the origin of species – well, mostly their criticisms of Darwin's theory. As you can guess, I ultimately thought that every single criticism had a bug, perhaps the very specific bug that I saw in them, but you may be sure that their knowledge of the species was impressive and the arguments were rather sophisticated.
Some of the arguments against evolution dealt with the speed of mutations - see also an old TRF interview with Franziska Michor. As far as I could say, the argument was almost perfect but it did contain a wrong assumption or oversimplification that was needed for the argument to go through, namely that the speed of mutations is dictated "from above" and may be predetermined by the author of the argument. In reality, even the speed of mutations is something that depends on your DNA and Nature is trying various experiments to help the (mutated) species survive in the given environment. This includes Ostrava-like suppression of the mutation rate whenever it seems like the frequent mutations are "forced upon the organisms" by the environment but they're not helpful to adapt to changes because the environment is nearly constant; and on the contrary, Nature may prefer mutations and organisms with a faster mutation rate whenever it seems like they need to adapt quickly and it's a better idea to try many mutations – Nature's individual experiments.
While I have mentioned top creationists as those who overlook the dynamical character of the mutation rate, it's really the environmentalists who are making this mistake – and many other mistakes – most frequently. Quite generally, they underestimate if not completely deny Nature's ability to adapt.
If someone understands evolution at the technical level, I would love him or her to explain to me how long a time it takes for a mutation like Ostragene to conquer much of the city. The original mutation had to be pretty random – i.e. unaffected by the environment, right? So it must have been due to the environmental pressures that the mutation started to spread in Ostrava and not in Prague, for example, am I right? Otherwise we would be back to the flawed Lamarckian evolution, I guess.