Mobile Menu

The Genetics of Christmas: How does Santa do it?

It’s that time of year again: the tree is up, the presents are wrapped and the milk and cookies are waiting by the chimney. Soon, Santa Claus will be making his way across the globe, delivering presents to all the children – naughty and nice!

But just how does Santa make this journey in just one evening? Armed with his team of trusty reindeer, it seems old Saint Nick must have some magic powers helping him along. But what if it’s all just in his DNA?

Rudolph the Bioluminescent-Nosed Reindeer

We’ll begin by taking a look at Rudolph. The most famous of Santa’s herd, Rudolph’s red nose is the topic of many Christmas tales. But what exactly makes Rudolph shine brighter than the rest?

The answer could be bioluminescence: the production of light by living organisms. It may seem magical, but the phenomenon is seen in a number of teeny-tiny creatures known as microorganisms, and even in insects such as fireflies. Bioluminescence is typically the result of a chemical reaction between an enzyme luciferase and the molecule luciferin. These components are the product of genes within the organisms DNA. Scientists think that bioluminescence is a mechanism to lure prey, attract mates and signal to other members of the population.

So, Rudolph’s glowing nose could be explained by his DNA. But what makes it red? This is where fluorescent proteins come in. A number of sea creatures also display bioluminescence in a broad range of colours, including jellyfish and anemones. On anemone in particular, Discosoma, exhibits a red glow; the result of the expression of a ‘red fluorescent protein’. This protein has been genetically engineered for use in scientific experiments, and can be commonly found in the lab.

So, there’s our answer: Rudolph must have the genes for bioluminescence, particularly red light, which explains his ability to guide Santa’s sleigh!

A lot of milk and cookies!

With his trusty reindeer lighting system, Santa is set for his journey. But every house in the world is a lot of visits in just one night. Plus, it’s customary to leave Santa a treat on Christmas Eve, in return for all the hard work he and his elves put into making and delivering all those presents. How can he possibly make it to all of those houses, and eat all of those cookies, without feeling unwell?

Thankfully, it seems Santa must have a very fast metabolism! This allows him to channel those sweet treats into the energy he needs to quickly navigate the globe. This phenomenon is also seen in hummingbirds, who have the fastest metabolism known to man! In fact, the hummingbird has to eat its weight in food every day just to maintain it’s fast-paced lifestyle, which even includes the ability to fly backwards! This ability is due to the loss of a gene called FBP2 in the hummingbird’s DNA.

That settles it then, it is clear that Santa must have a metabolism similar to that of a hummingbird, allowing him to zoom around in his sleigh whilst watching his waistline!

How is his dancing ability?

But now he’s made it to your house, how on earth will he fit down that chimney?

Never fear, Santa is a flexible guy! Another trait with a genetic explanation, it is clear that Santa must have inherited some genes that help him to slide down a chimney without a care in the world.

In fact, a number of different genes can play a role in making you as nimble as a ballerina. Mutations in ACTN3 gene have been linked to better flexibility and less risk of injury in dancers, whilst the COL5A1 gene (dubbed the ‘flexibility gene’) is also responsible for joint mobility. Sadly, however, a number of genes related to flexibility also have links to painful illnesses.

Clearly, Santa is an agile guy, but to help him avoid pulling a muscle, many are now opting to leave a special key to their front door that only he can use.

Up all night!

Now he’s delivered your presents, he’s off to visit the other children. With just one night to get everything in the right place, it’s important that Santa manages to stay awake and alert to keep his journey on track.

Therefore, it is likely that Santa has a genetic predisposition to working the nightshift! Whilst many animals display nocturnal behaviours, it has recently been proven that some humans are night owls by nature. This means that the individual’s circadian clockthe biological mechanism controlling our body’s schedule – operates a little different to the average. Among those who commonly display the night owl trait are firefighters, nurses and other shift workers; including your Christmas present courier!

(Although, only working one night a year probably helps…)

Reindeer GPS

It’s now time for Santa to head back to the North Pole. But how can he remember the route?

This must be down to the reindeer herd’s internal GPS. Like many other animals, Santa’s reindeer may simply be experts at finding their way home due to features that are part of their DNA. Using a keen sense of smell, inherent sense of direction and the Earth’s magnetic field, many animals never get lost.

Whilst Santa’s gift-giving abilities may be helped by his genes, there’s no doubt that there’s something special about the man in the red suit. Plenty of Santa’s activities can’t be explained by biology, and there’s no better time than Christmas to embrace the magic.

From everyone at Front Line Genomics, we hope you have a wonderful Christmas, and we’ll see you again in January!