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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials: Tay-Sachs Disease

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

Tay-Sachs Disease is an autosomal recessive disease caused by malfunctions in cellular lysosomes. It is usually first diagnosed in infancy and is almost always fatal.

A depiction of the hexaminidase A enzyme, which is responsible for Tay-Sachs disease.  Part of the Qwiz5 series by Qwiz Quizbowl Camp, written to help quiz bowl teams power more tossups!.

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge - patterns that will help you answer more questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on Tay-Sachs disease.


Tay-Sachs is caused by a buildup of GM2 gangliosides. The disease occurs when enzymes in cellular lysosomes are unable to properly breakdown GM2 gangliosides.


A deficiency or malfunction of the hexosaminidase A enzyme (which is responsible for breaking down GM2 gangliosides) causes Tay-Sachs disease. Hexosaminidase A issues can usually be traced to a mutation on chromosome 15 (also known as the HEXA gene). Much of what is known about the cellular causes of Tay-Sachs comes from studying the disease in Jacob Sheep.


Tay-Sachs is most easily diagnosed by the presence of a “cherry red” spot that appears on the retina of patients. Also it's worth mentioning that the cherry-red spot shows up in a variety of other metabolic storage diseases (most notably Sandhoff Disease and Niemann-Pick Disease). In the vast majority of quizbowl questions, however, "cherry red spot" is a clue for Tay-Sachs disease.


Tay-Sachs disease is especially common among Ashkenazi Jews. This is thought to be the result of the bottleneck effect dating to the European Middle Ages. To a lesser degree, the disease is prevalent among French Canadians and Cajuns for similar reasons.


Tay-Sachs is closely related to Sandhoff Disease or AB Variant Disease. The key difference in the diseases is which form of hexaminidase is involved.


Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:

* Read about Tay-Sachs from the National Human Genome Research Institute.

* Here's an interesting article about the bottleneck effect and its role in bringing about a high occurrence of Tay-Sachs in Ashkenazi Jewish populations.

* Tay-Sachs is prevalent in Jacob Sheep. Read about it here.


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