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[Crossposted from]

Scientists at Newcastle University have been given approval for new research aimed at combating a particular set of inherited human diseases: those that are passed on via mitochondrial DNA instead of the nuclear DNA most folks are familiar with. The trick? They’ll be creating human embryos that are the product of two mothers and one father. Here’s the background:

Nuclear DNA includes thousands of genes, and is given credit for making you who you are, and is in fact the only DNA considered when discussing the human “genome”. Mitochondrial DNA (MtDNA) only has 37 genes and doesn’t change much from individual to individual. However, that doesn’t mean that MtDNA isn’t capable of expressing diseases of its own.

So if you’re a mom who suffers from a mitochondrial disease, how do you keep from passing it on to your baby? According to the Newcastle researchers, here’s what you do: extract healthy ooplasm (including MtDNA) from a different mom’s egg cell and insert it into one of your own egg cells. Then fertilize it with the father’s sperm in the usual way (with glass rods and tubes and such) and presto! Healthy baby.

Trigger-finger ethics watchdogs suggest that you’ve just broken a new taboo — making an embryo that has two moms and one dad. Supporters would respond by saying that the nuclear DNA is the only “important” DNA, so who cares if the mitochondrial DNA comes from someone else?

Myself, I’m on the fence with this one. Most people would agree that there’s something ethically suspicious about making better babies by combining nuclear DNA from two moms. And while mitochondrial DNA doesn’t obviously code for things like blue eyes or long limbs, it does interact with nuclear DNA, working together for the expression and use of certain proteins. Will we discover some day that the rare and small differences found in MtDNA somehow have subtle (or profound) effects on the human phenotype — who we are and how we behave? If so, then mixing one mom’s DNA with the another mom’s MtDNA could lead us into ethically uncertain waters.

On the other hand, why not go for broke? Let’s use a surrogate mother for the womb too. Then we’ll have three mothers involved in the production of a newborn! Just imagine the positive impact such practices could have on profits on Mother’s Day… 🙂

[ Reference: BBC News ]

• Category: Science 
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This news article on New Scientist references a patent awarded on July 1 for a specific mutation of the BRCA breast cancer gene that mostly affects Ashkenazi Jews. Note the strange legal twist where supplimentary royalty fees are only due for testing if you fess up to knowing your Ashenazi ancestry…

Myriad Genetics of Salt Lake City won a European patent on 1 July covering a specific mutation in the BRCA2 gene, which increases the risk of breast cancer. The mutation is found in 1 in 100 women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. The ruling means that doctors offering tests for BRCA2 mutations are now legally obliged to ask women if they are Ashkenazi Jews. If they say they are, doctors must pay a licence fee to Myriad. No fee is due if a patient says she does not know.

“We believe there is something fundamentally wrong if one ethnic group can be singled out by patenting,” says Gert Matthijs of the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL) in Belgium, a member of the European Society of Human Genetics. “It means that someone is exploring the limits of what is acceptable legally and ethically.”

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(Crosspost from

The results of a study published this week suggest an undeniable connection between genetics and sexual behavior — at least with fruit flies.

A single gene appears to be responsible for whether a fruit fly will court male or females, regardless of its own gender.

[ From Medical News Today ]
A male fly’s sexual courtship of a female fly is a complicated business of tapping, singing, wing vibration, and licking, but a single gene is all that is needed to produce this complex behavior, according to new research published in this week’s issue of the journal Cell.

Dickson and Demir created male-spliced versions of fruitless in female flies and female-spliced versions in male flies. Males with the female version of fruitless “barely court at all” when paired with virgin female flies in an observation chamber, according to the researchers.

Males with the female fruitless splice form were also more likely to court other males than flies with the male form, suggesting that male-specific fruitless splicing “not only promotes male-female courtship, it also inhibits male-male courtship,” the researchers say.
Dickson and Demir refer to fruitless as a behavioral “switch gene” that is both necessary and sufficient to produce a particular behavior. Switch genes that trigger the development of a particular anatomical feature like wing structure have been studied extensively, but there are very few studies of switch genes that control a complex behavior, the researchers note.

None of the news is bold enough to suggest a human connection, i.e. a genetic basis for homosexuality, but it’s hard to overlook the fact that fruit flies share 60% of their genes with humans. Furthermore, fruit flies have been a hot subject for study since 2000, when it was discovered that they employ eerily similar genetic mechanisms as humans for morphological development into adults. [Didn’t your heart race during that brief excitement in 2000 when virtually all 13,601 genes belonging to the fruit fly genome were decoded?]

Posted by canton at 08:07 AM

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[crossposted from]

Apparently, there’s speculation that the Columbian drug cartels have been working on genetically modified coca plants. Whether GM technology is being used or not, it does appear that new crops are popping up that are herbicide resistant and produce eight times the yield of cocaine:

From a Reuters release:

BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) – Giant coca plants said to resist herbicides and yield eight times more cocaine may be due to extra fertilizer, not a drug cartel’s genetic modification program, a scientist said on Tuesday.

A Colombian police intelligence dossier quoted in the Financial Times said smugglers apparently received help from foreign scientists to develop a herbicide-resistant tree that yields eight times more cocaine than normal shrubs.

But a toxicologist who studied the plants for the police said he knew of no evidence that showed whether the plants were genetically modified or merely grew big because they received an unusually large amount of fertilizer.

“We regularly hear rumors that narcotraffickers are working to create a transgenic form of coca, but there is no scientific proof that they have undertaken such research,” Phyllis Powers, Director of the Narcotics Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, said at the time.

Well it doesn’t look like we’ve got giant GM coca monster plants yet… but it’s not at all inconceivable. When you look at plants that have pharmocological value to humans, the evolution of those plants often gets kicked into overdrive.

A really (really!) great read is The Botany of Desire – A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan. In it, he talks about how one way of looking the evolution of plants is to consider how they have “used” humans. This is in the sense of how a flower “uses” a bumblebee. The bumblebee thinks it’s just using the flower to satisfy its needs, but the flower thinks it’s just the other way around. Michael Pollan considers how four plants — the potato, the tulip, the apple, and marijuana — have used humans to advance their own agenda.

When you think about it, marijuana has done this amazing job of using humans to extend its reach through the biosphere. I doubt any plant has ever expanded its habitat as quickly as pot has in the last thirty years. It grows in pitch-black basements, in frozen Scandanavian cities, and it will no doubt be grown in space someday.

Yes, this all happens with the help of humans and our technology, but to deny that we play a part in natural evolution would be like denying that bees play that same role. Have you ever seen how a beehive works? They have technology too!

Posted by canton at 02:59 PM

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Crossposted from

My friend Steve Miller, prolific creator of venerable innervision-arts site
and current events watchdog site pointed me to this page:

If you’ve ever read Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age then this post-apocalyptic corporate sales pitch should be familiar.

Take a moment to meditate on the future of you and your beloved manufacturers. Knowing that commerce without attrition can lead to the eventual extinction of your product line, isn’t it time you considered the fool-proof option of a fully controlled viral epidemic? Think of the instantaneous market share boost you would receive after your competitor’s labor population was attrited with a virus made just for them.


In other news, a book on genetics has won the £10,000 Guardian award — the first time a non-fiction book has ever won this prize.

Posted by canton at 08:10 AM

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Crossposted from Trawled from Genetic Kit to Pick Sports Stars The West Australian.

Want to know whether you’re better suited to endurance sports like marathons, or “sprint-power” sports like Judo or short-distance swimming? You could spend some time swimming and running and see which one feels more natural…

… or, you could just send $110AU to the Genetic Technologies Corporation in Melbourne Australia. Why sweat and expend all that unnecessary effort to figure out which athletic events are your forté? Instead, just swab your cheek, sign a check, lick a stamp, and spend 2-3 weeks on the couch while you wait for your genetic screening results.

The science behind this test doesn’t seem totally unreasonable. The company tested 300 “elite athletes” for the R577X variant of ACTN3 gene. This genetic variant determines whether or not the alpha-actinin-3 protein will be present in fast-twitch muscle fibers. It makes sense that this study found a correlation between the absence/presence of this gene and sprinting versus endurance sports.

So what’s the problem here? Genetic Technologies Corporation isn’t engaging in any serious breach of ethics here. It’s not like they’re offering you a home kit to modify your sperm so you can pick whether your future child will be a Bruce Lee or Abebe Bikila. But what, exactly, are they offering you that can’t be determined without this miracle of modern technology? A fundamental part of living life is figuring out your aptitudes. Being guided by statistics towards one sport or another doesn’t save you time — it just robs you of the opportunity to beat the statistics and be a marathon runner who has an abundance of fast-twitch muscle fibers.

What I would really like to see is a genetic test that screens for succeptibility to fall for science-based scams that encourage you spend $110AU for no good reason. Now that would be interesting!

Posted by canton at 05:25 PM

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[Crossposted from] – What do lightning and bacteria have to do with one another? Quite a bit, it turns out…

Global Gravy

To begin with, lightning and bacteria share the important job of providing the fundamental food for all of life on Earth: fixed nitrogen. Plants eat the nitrogen, animals eat the plants, and then the most barbarous of us animals eat one another. Pull nitrogen out of the pyramid, and the whole thing collapses.


Our atmosphere stores a significant portion of our planet’s reserve of pure nitrogen (N2). That said, most plants can’t eat nitrogen until it gets fixed in some other compound, such as nitrate (NO3-), ammonia (NH3), or urea (NH2)2CO. As of today, we only know of two mechanisms in nature that facilitate the creation of these compounds:

Nitrifying Bacteria – which do the dirty work of turning plant and animal excretions and dead organisms into ammonia. Farther down the line, additional bacteria convert some of this ammonia into nitrites (NO2-) and nitrates (NO3-). Lightning – which, as it blasts a path through the atmosphere, splits apart nitrogen molecules. The resulting promiscuous nitrogen atoms combine with oxygen to form nitrogen oxides (NO3-). Rain dissolves these into nitrates, which then wash to the surface of the Earth.

Lightning and bacteria — strange bedfellows, don’t you think? But wait, it gets weirder yet…

Genetic Partners-in-Slime

If the above recapitulation of the Nitrogen Cycle was yesterday’s news for you, then you might find this factoid more interesting: Bolts of lightning appear to be responsible for facilitating gene transfer in soil bacteria. From New Scientist’s website:

Scientists commonly use electricity to increase the permeability of bacterial cell membranes, making it easier to insert DNA. Now Sandrine Demanèche’s team at the University of Lyon has provided the first evidence that nature may have been wise to this trick all along.

The researchers seeded soil samples with the E. coli bacterium, as well as fragments of DNA containing genes for antibiotic resistance. They zapped the soil with a simulated lightning strike, and found that many of the bacteria had acquired the resistance genes.

Bacteria are already known to take up and use foreign DNA released into the environment when other organisms die. Scientists knew this “horizontal gene transfer” occurs naturally in soil, but thought it was relatively rare. However, recent genomic research indicates that this gene take-up is widespread and has played a major role in the evolution of the bacterial genome.

“This result might help explain the discrepancy between the very low observed rates of gene transfer and the apparently wide distribution of DNA sequences among bacteria,” says team member Timothy Vogel.

Yay lightning! Yay bacteria! And yow, what a kick in the pants when you appreciate how little we know about how genes go about spreading themselves. After all, if there is one thing genes “want”, it’s to get Somewhere Else. As such, the kinds of biological mechanisms genes code for will tend to express weirder and weirder means of gene transference as sex and pollination reach their natural limits…

Thanks to j.kimball’s nitrogen cycle summary for the above diagram, and for refreshing my high-school biology understanding on this matter. Posted by canton at 10:21 AM

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[Assorted pet news crossposted from]


Once again, studies of mitochondrial DNA have revealed something interesting about the ancestral origins of species:

Aug. 3, 2004 — Dingoes, Australia’s wild dogs, are descended from Asian domesticated dogs, not wolves, according to international research.
[Discovery Channel News, reporting on this PNAS abstract]

I love stuff like this. It reminds us that we humans (and our domesticated pets, for that matter) are not the pinnacle of evolution. More bad-ass stuff is yet to come. Take a look at this dingo, for example. Do you think Lassie would have a chance in an all-out claws and fangs battle with this puppy?

Kind of makes you wonder what house cats are going to evolve into…

Two kittens have been born using a new cloning method that may be safer and more efficient than traditional methods, a U.S. company said Thursday.

Genetic Savings & Clone promises to clone anyone’s pet — for $50,000 or so — and started with chief executive officer Lou Hawthorne’s own pet cat.
[As reported in this article in Wired News.]


You know, just in case you’re concerned about running out of housecats once they evolve into something ferocious like the Australian dingo.

Posted by canton at 10:51 AM

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[Crosspost from]

Here’s an article that brings up some tricky cause/effect questions:

Genes May Determine Who Developed Gulf War Syndrome [U. Buffalo news wire, Aug 9 2004]

The research showed that a certain gene predicted whether or not veterans who served in the Persian Gulf War would come with Gulf War Syndrome:

External or environmental factors do play a role in Gulf War Syndrome, said Vladutiu, but likely as triggers in those with a genetic predilection, rather than as the initial cause.

These triggers may be extreme exertion, heat, chemical exposures, infections, multiple vaccinations, emotional stress and a combination of these conditions or something else entirely.

This reminds me of another set of controversial studies, those focusing on people infected with Simian virus 40.

“Simian virus what?” Take note! SV40 is something YOU may have! Simian virus 40 used to be exclusively a Monkey Thing, but during the 1960’s the virus hitched a ride into our species when we had the bright idea to manufacture polio vaccines from ground-up infected monkey kidneys. (Vegans take note.)

SV40, like HIV, can’t be cured, and it probably spreads through sexual contact. Unlike HIV, it doesn’t seem to harm you on its own. (There’s a little controversy on this issue, however.) Without a doubt, SV40 doesn’t kill you, so the chances are that someday it will become pretty much ubiquitous among humans, as will herpes and a whole host of other non-debilitating viruses.

So here’s the problem with Simian virus 40. While on its own, SV40 may not be harmful to humans, when combined with asbestos, it’s deadly. For a long time, researchers were puzzled by the fact that while some people who had minimal contact with asbestos died of asbestos-related cancer, other people who lived, worked, and breathed asbestos all day long for years never had any such problems. The breakthrough came when we realized that if you carried SV40, this made you susceptible to asbestosis. Our government, which was responsible for infecting millions of its citizens with SV40, tends to be a little hesitant to admit fault in all this. Understandably, there is some concern that people might not look kindly on preventative vaccination practices if this news got a lot of attention.

Anyhow, what’s interesting about both these diseases — Gulf War Syndrome and Asbestosis — is that they seem to express themselves exclusively in the presence of certain environmental conditions. It kind of makes you wonder what other genes we have lurking inside of us, just waiting for the right circumstances for them to expose their secret nature…

Posted by canton at 11:29 AM

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[crosspost from]

The National Academy of Sciences recently published a report (available as a book, or as a free download from here) which says that genetically modified food is no way substantially different from non-GM food. It says that GM foods, just like regular foods, carry risks. The report admits that GM technology can cause these risks to pop up in unlikely places (e.g. GM insect-resistant celery that gives farm workers severe skin rashes) but stops short of saying that GM food is in any way less “safe” than non-GM food.

More specifically, the NAS report says that the substances that compose GM food can’t be meaningfully distinguished from the substances in ordinary food. As such, the FDA is basically discouraged from treating GM food in a different way than regular food when it comes to safety.

Generally speaking, this report doesn’t alarm me in any way. It puts forward the point of view that most reasonable science-minded folks hold, that GM food doesn’t contain weird never-before-seen toxins, and that anyone who thinks that GM food is going to kill us is being a little foolish.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t do much to promote GM food labeling. There are a lot of reasons we should require GM food to be labeled as such. For one thing, there are a lot of folks who don’t want to help finance companies that are participating in the GM food industry. While GM food is probably safe for us, it’s too early to tell whether or not it’s going to mess up our ecosystem. Many consumers would like to vote with their dollars, and spend their money on traditional foods instead of jumping head-first into GM technology.

Also, while GM food is probably safe for most of us, it does risk killing a few of us. A while back, someone had the idea to improve the nutritional quality of soybeans by creating a transgenic soybean — borrowing 2S albumin production from Brazil nuts. As it turned out, if you were deathly allergic to Brazil nuts, you would also be deathly allergic to this soybean. Consider the dilemma of someone who fears Brazil nuts. You grow up knowing that you’re deathly allergic to Brazil nuts, and you learn how to avoid them and products that contain them. How would you cope if GM soybeans containing your allergen entered the market, but weren’t labeled as such? Soybeans are everywhere, from baby food to breakfast cereal to McDonald’s hamburgers.

So while a GM soybean is not “substantially different” from non-GM food, that is, while it doesn’t contain weird proteins that we’ve never dealt with, that doesn’t mean it’s such a safe food that it doesn’t require special FDA attention and labeling.

[Richard Caplan, U.S. Public Interest Research group] cites as a major weakness in the report its discussion of the potential allergenicity of genetically engineered crops. While the report authors agree that allergenicity should be evaluated “in every case” and that improvements to the current system are known and have been thoroughly discussed, it fails to call on the FDA to institute a mandatory pre-market assessment according to commonly accepted protocols like the one laid out by the Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization.

U.S. PIRG has long supported a system that requires foods to be labeled if they contain genetically engineered ingredients, which would help to accomplish a recommendation of the report that the government should require that food labels include “relevant nutritional attributes so that consumers can receive more complete information about the nutritional components in GM foods introduced to the marketplace.” The report also calls for a significant increase in transparency of data submissions, which would help remove the large cloud of secrecy surrounding whatever testing is done on genetically engineered crops. For example, a Monsanto study recently reported in Le Monde appears to show deleterious effects on rats in a feeding study of genetically engineered crops, but the company has failed to release it, claiming it as confidential business information.

“The fact is these foods are on our dinner tables right now,” concluded Caplan. “Unfortunately there remains much work to be done to improve the system of oversight for genetically engineered food crops, and it starts by changing the current voluntary system at FDA to a mandatory one.”
— Environmental Media Services

Posted by canton at 10:52 AM

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