Genetic study could explain Irish giant folklore

A 2016 Irish genetic study may explain why giants have played such an important role in Irish folklore.

The study, led by researchers from Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry in collaboration with 20 other institutions, found that a genetic mutation that could potentially cause gigantism was particularly high in one region of Ulster.

University researchers studied patients with acromegaly, a disease that causes gigantism, and also tested DNA samples from the general public to identify potential carriers of a genetic mutation that causes both acromegaly and gigantism.

With the help of patients and members of the public, they studied groups in three regions of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and found that a genetic mutation in AIP, called R304, was unusually common in the middle of Ulster.

The study identified 81 carriers of the genetic mutation, from 18 different families in central Ulster.

The 81 bearers appeared to be descended from the same ancestor, who lived in mid-Ulster more than 2,500 years ago.

This is probably the highest proportion of giants in the world in this small part of Northern Ireland,” said Marta Korbonits, professor of endocrinology at Barts and London Queen Mary School of Medicine.

Of the 81 carriers, 31 had developed acromegaly, while 18 had developed gigantism.

Professor Sian Ellard from the University of Exeter took part in the study and said it explains why giants are so prevalent in Irish folklore.

“Irish folklore has many stories regarding Irish giants and the remains of some of these giants have been studied in the past. Our data provide an explanation for the sighting made by pioneering anthropologist James C. Prichard in 1826.”

The researchers said the study could explain the folklore behind the Giant’s Causeway or the legend that giants created Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland.

More importantly, however, the study allows researchers to screen people from all 18 families for the genetic mutation and provide early treatment for the disease.

The study also revealed that there are possibly 436 carriers and 86 affected people on the island of Ireland with undiagnosed acromegaly or gigantism. Scientists may be able to prevent the onset of gigantism and prevent premature mortality associated with the disease if they can successfully locate undiagnosed cases of the disease.

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