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The Science of Shamrocks: What’s so lucky about a four-leaf clover?

by Jaclyn Cosgrove Published: March 17, 2014

Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation is here to explain the science behind the elusive four-leaf clover:

OKLAHOMA CITY — What’s so lucky about a four-leaf clover?

“Well, you’re lucky to find one in the first place,” said Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “The symbolism of the four-leaf clover may be everywhere, but a real one is actually a rarity.”

 About 1 specimen in 10,000 of Trifolium repens (aka white clover) has four leaves instead of the usual three. Trifolium is Latin for “three leaf.”

 “Saint Patrick was said to use the shamrock, the three-leaf clover, to teach about the Holy Trinity,” Prescott said. “Whereas the four-leaf version is supposed to stand for faith, hope, love and luck.”

 It’s said that only by finding one accidentally is a four-leaf clover lucky, he said, but the reason for the extra leaf is pure science.

 “The cause of the fourth leaf is likely genetic. Because it’s so rare, it might be a recessive gene—the way red hair appears only occasionally in some families—or some type of mutation,” Prescott said. “And that’s something OMRF scientists have plenty of experience studying.”

 Inside each cell in the human body there’s a copy of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) made up of billions of base pairs of proteins.

 “About 99.5 percent of human DNA is identical, but the differences in that .5 percent are what make us individuals,” Prescott said. “Changes in the DNA are called mutations and we all have them. Some make no difference at all, while others are linked to everything from hair color and height to different diseases.”

Researchers at OMRF use patient samples to find genetic mutations related to autoimmune diseases, including lupus, Sjögren’s syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, as well as cancer and developmental disorders.

“By understanding how our genes can cause diseases, we hope to find new ways to predict and prevent the onset of illnesses or find new treatments for diseases we already have,” he said.

In 2010, scientists at the University of Georgia found and manipulated a gene that produces a fourth leaf on Trifolium repens.

“But, much like our work, I suspect it was more than luck that led them to that discovery,” Prescott said.

by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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