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Is There a Gene for Magic?

What do adult Quidditch games, a theme park at Universal Studios in Florida, countless knockoffs, and biomedical research have in common? They were all inspired by J.K. Rowling's phenomenally popular Harry Potter series, says the Hartford Courant's William Weir. For more than 10 years, researchers have used the Potter series as a starting point for studies on genetics, social cognition, and autism. A search of PubMed finds 30 studies that invoke Potter, Weir says, like "Harry Potter and the Recessive Allele," "Harry Potter and the Structural Biologist's (Key)stone," and "Harry Potter Casts a Spell on Accident-Prone Children." Some of the studies have been fanciful — one aimed to diagnose the cause of Harry's headaches — but most of them use the series as a tool to study a real-world problem. The University of Iowa's Martha Driessnack published a study in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing on how the books can be used to explain genetics in a simple fashion, Weir says. "For instance, children might wonder why they have traits different from their parents', or why a sibling has a hereditary disease when there's no apparent history of it in the family," he adds. Driessnack says that the character Hermione, who is a witch herself even though her parents are both non-magical "Muggles," illustrates the concept of recessive genes, while the caretaker Argus Filch — who has no magical powers even though both of his parents do — can be used to illustrate the incomplete penetrance of a gene.