Archive | February 2014

With three biological parents, exactly whose baby is it?

For those who live in constant fear that we are rapidly heading towards a GATTACA-like society (if you haven’t seen this movie yet, go watch it. I’ll wait) look out! Science is taking a major leap that not even Andrew Niccol could have seen coming. Sometime in the not so distant future, your kid could have three parents. Well, more specifically two moms and one dad. This new procedure, called oocyte modification (or the more user-friendly three-parent IVF) is designed to lower the potential for genetically inherited genes being passed on to the baby.

I can't wait for the modern version of the children's book "Are You My Mother?" Photo by Bonnie U. Gruenberg

I can’t wait for the modern version of the children’s book “Are You My Mother?”
Photo by Bonnie U. Gruenberg

Here’s the watered down version of how it works. Basically, your cells have two different sets of DNA. One of these sets is what you usually think of when you think of DNA, with half coming from your dad and half coming from your mom. But the second, called mitochondrial DNA, you get all from your mother. That’s pretty cool because it lets you trace you heritage all the way back the female line because the mitochondrial DNA stays pretty much the same throughout generations. Or it did… until now. If you are unfortunate enough to have a mutation in your mitochondrial DNA that could cause your child to have a disease, then by using this technique your doctor can just scoop out (Scientific American’s words, not mine) your mitochondrial DNA and stick in some happy DNA from a healthy donor mom. It would be like if you were making deviled eggs and dropped the yolk on the floor and so you had to use the yolk from a different egg. Actually, it’s nothing like that at all, but I’m at a loss for a better analogy, so you get the idea! The rest is just like normal in vitro fertilization. They’ve actually had success in doing this in monkey and human embryos and are ready to move on to clinical trials.

So moving passed the immediate “What the hell!?” response, I want to dive into what exactly this will mean. The first questions that popped into my mind (and I’m guessing a lot of other people’s minds) is, how much of this baby will still be yours? Well, it depends on what part of your baby you care about. Mitochondrial DNA is stored in, you guessed it, the mitochondria! These are the part of the cell that make energy. But to get any further, we need a little cellular history lesson. Biology+history=fun!

Because mitochondria have their own DNA, there is a theory that waaaayyyyy back when the only life was a bunch of single cells floating around, one big cell (in typical big cell fashion) ate a little cell. But instead of the big cell breaking down and digesting the little cell, the two started working together. And so, the little cell became the mitochondria and made it possible for the big cell to go on to even bigger and better things.

Awww look, he has your mitochondria! Image by Louisa Howard

Awww, he has your mitochondria!
Image by Louisa Howard

As a result, it shouldn’t be very surprising that pretty much all the mitochondrial DNA goes toward the structure and function of the mitochondria itself. So, if you really want your child’s cells to make energy just like yours do, then three-parent IVF may not be for you. But the rest of baby will probably still be a chip off the original two blocks.

But this leads to my second question. Why do we need/want this procedure? To be clear, I am definitely against babies being born with genetic diseases, and I think our ability to screen for these diseases before conception is huge. But do we really need to raise children of our own genetic material so badly that we are willing to spend all this money and resources to get one? Don’t get me wrong, I want kids. And I want them to be of my own genetic material. But if I can’t have kids for some reason, I consider adoption to be a fantastic option. In fact, I might adopt just to adopt even after having a kid of my own. There are so many children in the system in desperate need of loving families, why do we need to go to such great lengths to make new ones just so that they’ll be related to us or so we can carry them in our own bodies?

Maybe my evolutionary drive just isn’t as strong as some people’s. After all, in terms of evolution the only ones who are considered successful are the ones who pass on as much of their DNA as possible, so in a way this drive makes sense. But at what point (if any) can we all agree it has gone too far?

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Death of snake handler highlights the dangers of dangerous animals

This Saturday pastor Jamie Coots, well known for his habit of handling snakes as a way to show his relationship with god, was killed by a snakebite. Now, I do my best not to insult other people’s religious beliefs, and the point I want to make here goes way beyond religion. Frankly, it is amazing (I won’t dare say miracle) that Coots wasn’t killed before. There is a reason why owning

A snake handler at the Pentecostal Church in Kentucky in 1946. This practice has gone on in the Appalachian region since it was first introduced in the early 1900s.

A snake handler at the Pentecostal Church in Kentucky in 1946. This practice has gone on in the Appalachian region since it was first introduced in the early 1900s.

and handling the snakes he used is illegal, and I feel like this should be rather obvious, and those who agree with me may feel free to skip this particular post.

I would attribute Coots’ success not to divine intervention, but rather to an in-depth knowledge of snake behavior. As a third generation snake handler I’m betting his family taught Coots the tricks of the trade, though I don’t doubt that Coots truly believed his faith kept him safe. But the problem is that no matter how well you understand animal behavior when it comes to wild animals, nothing is certain.

Take Steve Irwin, my childhood hero. I’m not sure there was another person on earth who understood animals better than he did. He handled every dangerous animal you could imagine, but just one small mistake with a stingray cost him his life. And then there’s Siegfried and Roy, who performed magic shows with white tigers and lions for over 30 years before the horrifying moment when Roy was almost killed by a white tiger during a show. No matter how well you know an animal, if doesn’t have the genetic ability (called domestication) to learn to interact with humans there is always a chance it could accidentally, or intentionally hurt someone.

This is why, when my friend forwarded me the video of the man who hugs lions my mind immediately raced from “Wow that’s crazy!” to “Oh god this cannot end well.” Because while I do believe it is amazing and kind of wonderful that this man was able to develop this sort of relationship with these wild animals, there is every chance he will end up as another Grizzly Man.

When I first heard about Jamie Coots my first thought was that while sad, perhaps his death could show other religious snake handlers that religious faith is not enough to protect you from these unpredictable and lethal animals. But then I found an article saying the exact opposite, that preachers expect his death to inspire more people to handle venomous snakes as a display of faith. I won’t get into how backwards I find this logic. And honestly, if you want to do something foolish that could very well end in your death, ordinarily I would say that’s your decision. But when an animal causes human injury or death, it is usually the animal that is blamed regardless of the circumstances, and it is usually the animal that is punished. I don’t mean to get preachy (sorry, couldn’t help myself) and I know some people might get sick of these talks always coming back to being about animal welfare, but someone needs to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. And because the message still hasn’t sunk in. Animals do not speak our language, and they aren’t malicious or spiteful. All they can do is react to the situations they are in the only way they know how.

News flash: Tuna don’t like being soaked in oil

Just in time for Valentines Day a new study* was just published in the prestigious journal Science showing that crude oil, like all the oil that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010, can have a pretty negative impact on tuna heart function thus giving everyone the opportunity to use all their stored up broken-hearted tuna jokes.

But it really isn’t all that funny. Basically, toxins in the oil are messing with the potassium currents in the tuna’s heart. As any athlete knows, potassium is really important to keep your muscles working properly. The heart, well that’s a pretty important muscle. And it turns out this toxin is particularly bad for developing embryos. Oh and guess what! That Deepwater Horizon spill happened right around the spot where bluefin and yellowfin tuna like to spawn (as well as a bunch of other fish who will probably be affected in a similar way). So it’s not like a bunch of old tuna who have already lived a long life with lots of babies are going to get heart attacks and die. A bunch of their babies will also have heart attacks and die. No so great for an endangered species.

But hey, who cares if our food gives us cancer or goes extinct because all the babies have heart problems as long as we have cheap oil right?

Well, at least there's no oil here Photo by SEFSC Pascagoula Laboratory; Collection of Brandi Noble, NOAA/NMFS/SEFSC.

Well, at least there’s no oil here
Photo by SEFSC Pascagoula Laboratory; Collection of Brandi Noble, NOAA/NMFS/SEFSC.

*Full disclosure, this study was done at the marine lab I’m currently doing my PhD work at, and I might have dated one of the authors on the paper, so I might be a little biased towards thinking this is an awesome study, which it is!

New show about space!

Because the universe isn’t fair, my dad has informed me that Niel deGrasse Tyson recently spoke at my alma mater Bucknell University. In case you’ve been living under a science free rock, Niel deGrasse Tyson is basically the spokesperson for outer space. He is an astrophysicist who specializes in using the general media for science communication. He’s sort of a more serious Bill Nye. And he has a new television series coming out. Well, it’s not new, it’s a reboot of the series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage which was originally hosted by Carl Sagan, former spokesperson for outer space. Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey looks like it’s going to be awesome, and with Neil deGrasse Tyson involved you know it’s going to be informative and easy to understand. Win win! The show will premiere on March 9 on Fox.

And if you want to see Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about his relationship with Carl Sagan and the new series, check out the interview he gave at Bucknell.

Is Organic really worth the hype?

Photo by Kevin Law

Photo by Kevin Law

It seems like lately a lot of shade has been thrown at organic food. Studies have claimed there aren’t any nutritional benefits in organic produce or meat than in “conventional” foods (which I would argue there is nothing conventional about if you go back far enough in history), and that the pesticide levels probably aren’t any safer in organic produce. The take away from all of this seems to be people who buy organic are suckers, throwing their money away under the false belief that they are doing what’s healthy for themselves and their families. I’m not unfamiliar with this concept, I’ve had family (you know who you are), friends, and colleagues tell me how foolish I am for buying into the organic is better doctrine. Well, here I will try to offer a concise summary of the pros and cons of organic and let you make your own decisions*.

What it means: The term “organic” has strict rules associated with its use, unlike other terms such as “all natural.” The livestock must be raised on all organic feed products (dairy cows must have been fed organic for a year before the milk can be sold as organic) grazing animals must be out to pasture for no less than 120 days a year and must receive 30% of their food from pasture. All organic animals must have outdoor access year round, and may not be given growth hormones or antibiotics for any reason. Produce cannot be sprayed with artificial pesticides and there are strict guidelines for maintaining soil quality. Also the use of “sewage sludge” is not allowed.

Benefits of organic eating for you (meat): 1. Health: Perhaps many of you have heard about the rise in antibiotic resistant bacteria in the past few years. While a lot of this can be attributed to the overperscription of antibiotics from doctors to patients (antibiotics, which kill bacteria, are useless in fighting illnesses caused by viruses like the common cold or the flu), use of antibiotics in animals is a major cause as well, and it has been shown there are less antibiotic resistant bacteria in farms that don’t use antibiotics. In fact, the use of preventive antibiotics in livestock in Europe is heavily restricted, but in the U.S. only organic meats have restrictions on antibiotic use.  It’s less clear if all the growth hormones are negatively impacting our health.
2. Taste: It has been widely accepted that organic meat tastes better than conventional meat. Although this effect may be partly psychological, grass fed beef certainly has a different flavor and texture than corn fed beef (and is leaner and therefore healthier). To some people (like me) the gamey quality of grass fed beef is way better than the fatty flavor of conventional beef, but this is purely a matter of personal preference.
3. Less spoilage: Organic milk has a much longer shelf life than conventional milk (almost a month as opposed to only a week or so). Turns out this actually has little to do with the organic treatment of the cows and more to do with the preservation process used in organic milk vs conventional milk.
4. Eat less meat: The high cost of eating organic meat means you may think twice about including it in every meal. To me, this is a good thing. Livestock are responsible for 20% of the world’s methane production, which is a huge climate change contributor, so cutting down on the number of livestock would be a huge help to the planet’s overall health. And speaking of health, it’s proven that cutting down on the amount of meat in your diet can have a drastic effect on your long term health.

Benefits of organic eating for you (produce):1. The jury is still out: Some studies will tell you organic produce has more nutrients and antioxidants, but newer studies are now saying there is no difference at all. While organic produce does have fewer pesticides, it might not be enough to make a difference in your health.

Benefits of organic practices for the animals:1. Humane: Because the animals are given access to the outdoors year round and are fed a more natural diet, organic practices definitely make for happier animals than conventional methods, but are by no means perfect. If humane animal welfare is really what you’re after, you need to go a step further by buying local, from people who know the exact conditions the animal was raised in like butchers and farmers markets.

Benefits of organic practices for the environment: 1. Livestock: Conventional livestock farming methods are a huge source of pollution. Organic farms are generally smaller and so produce less waste, and they reuse the manure as fertilizer since they can’t use artificial fertilizers to grow the food to feed the livestock.
2. Produce: The methods used in organic agriculture result in healthier soil and greater plant biodiversity, making this practice more sustainable long-term.

The downside:1. Cost: Organic meat is much more expensive than conventional meat. If you are the sort of person who wants to have meat with every meal, going completely organic is going to put a serious dent in your bank account. However, I choose to view this as a positive since it forces me to eat meat less often, which as I mentioned earlier is good for your overall health. And paying extra for produce where the immediate health benefits to you are unclear isn’t exactly strong motivation to fork over the extra cash.

So, is it worth it? That’s something you have to answer for yourself, and I want to emphasize this article only just scratched the surface of this debate. There are so many more nuances on how separated we are from where our food actually comes from, and you have to decide if you care enough to keep looking into it.If you want to keep digging, I highly recommend reading Some we love, some we hate, some we eat and All Natural, I found them both well written, informative and really interesting Or just let Google be your guide.

For me, it is absolutely worth it to buy only organic meat that I know has been humanely raised. It forces me to eat less meat, and I feel better knowing I’m doing my bit to help further humane treatment of animals and improve the environment. As for organic produce, I buy it when I can and try to go to local farmers markets as much as possible, but I won’t pass buy some really tasty looking avocados just because they don’t have that little organic label. Since the only real downside to buying organic is cost, it seems silly not to if you can afford it. If it’s out of your price range, then my personal recommendation is don’t sweat the vegetables and just cut down on your meat consumption. Either way it always helps to be a well informed consumer!

*Disclaimer: with such a controversial topic, it can be difficult to find completely unbiased information. I’ve tried to give the most objective information possible, but keep in mind everyone can be swayed by their own preconceived notions.

Reminder: Bill Nye vs Creationism Debate tonight

Just a friendly reminder for anyone who is interested, Bill Nye will be debating Ken Ham (founder of the Creation Museum) tonight at 7pm est. Anyone who wants to watch the debate live can do so here.

Is that snow, or is it plastic? (It’s snow)

So once again my mom has proven much better than me at finding cool blog post ideas. The newest craze that has “gone viral” as the kids say, is the idea that the unusual snowfall in Georgia is…duh duh duh!… not real snow! There are several do it yourself experiments being demonstrated all over Youtube to prove this theory. Let’s take a look.

In this video for example, the man exclaims “Where is the water!” as he holds first a lighter, then a blowtorch to some snow he

Georgia, 1902. Back then the chemtrails were produced via carrier pigeons.

Georgia, 1902. Back then the chemtrails were produced via carrier pigeons.

had just collected outside his house. He believes the government (or somebody) is spraying chemicals (known as chemtrails) to make snow to slow down “global warming” (his quotation marks) and this is the result. He does multiple tests, proves the lighter is real, then shows what happens when you do the same thing to an ice-cube.

What we have here folks is an example of people taking solid scientific concepts that they don’t fully understand and coming to the wrong conclusion as a result of it. On the face of it, he does seem to be conducting his experiment objectively, with an experimental group (snow) and a control group (ice). But he doesn’t take into account the subtle but important differences between snow and ice cubes: density. Basically, density refers to how much of something there is compared to its size. In and ice-cube, there is a lot of ice and very little air. In snow, there is a lot of air and very little water.  Ergo, ice is denser than snow, and it’s why when you melt snow in your mouth (which is something I still do impulsively anytime I see snow anywhere) you get a lot less water compared to how much snow you scooped up. And it’s why you wouldn’t expect melted snow to create as much water as an ice-cube.

“But wait!” the people at Fox News are calling out to me, “There wasn’t ANY water when he melted the snow!”

Not true, but as explained in this Slate article, the rest of the snow absorbs the melting water. If you look closely, you can see the snow becoming more clear and shiny both after the lighter and the blowtorch. That would be water. Other articles (yes, I know this one is from a government website, that doesn’t make it a conspiracy) explain a process called sublimation, where the melting step is skipped over and a solid goes straight to gas.

Now what about this video? This one is a bit more convincing. This time, the snow does not melt (at least not very quickly), and it turns black where the lighter touches it. The star of the film also claims to smell burning plastic. Well, some parts of this are easier for me to explain than others. The blackness on the snow is easy. This is most likely impurities from the lighter collecting on the snow. Most fuels (especially those in barbecue lighters) are not pure. When you burn them, you release the impurities. Sometimes you see these as smoke or soot. It’s why anything that has been near a lot of open flame starts to turn black, like chimneys. Again, we have the water being absorbed by snow to explain the lack of melting. The plastic smell? I’m guessing it’s either from the lighter itself or she singed her gloves.

But let’s ignore what I have to say about the matter. For a moment, don’t trust anything I just said, and think about these questions instead. If this is in fact plastic snow that CANNOT melt when held against a flame, how will the people behind the conspiracy keep it up when temperatures get above freezing? Normal snow would start melting above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. That is a lot colder than that lighter. I think people will notice when we’re halfway through June and the snow hasn’t gone anywhere. And if it does just turn straight to gas as some people are claiming, even people in Atlanta will notice that the snow isn’t first turning to slush, then puddles, then disappearing all together. And don’t you think all my snow eating brethren will notice if the snow tastes like plastic? It just doesn’t hold up.

Here’s the thing, I am VERY against the excessive use of chemicals. I buy organic, I don’t like pesticides, I’m pretty much into all that hippie dippie nonsense. And I’m not an idiot, I know the government is probably doing a lot of stuff we don’t know about. I watch The X-Files, I know the truth is out there. I just don’t think this particular conspiracy theory makes one lick of sense. With half our government refusing to even acknowledge that climate change exists, how are they going to get the money or approval to use chemtrails to create snow? AND even if there is a secret government lab at President Obama’s bidding, climate change doesn’t seem to be a top priority of his right now. AND even if that is a ruse too and it is secretly his sole mission to reverse climate change through chemical warfare on the planet it would be way, WAY better than this. You would not know. No home science experiment could uncover the lies. If there was an army of scientists trying to trick you into believing in the polar vortex, you would have absolutely no way of proving otherwise.

But I do want to leave you with one last thought. I think it is awesome that these people are at home, testing these ideas for themselves. I just wish they would do all the research instead of just jumping on the conclusion that fits with an idea they had going in. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and even established scientists are not immune. But I just wish it didn’t take the idea of a government conspiracy to get people to start exploring the world around them. If we would all take a little more time to see and understand this world, then we wouldn’t be as quick to believe every wild tale that came our way.