Tag Archives: Genes

Kickstarting Genetically Modified Organisms

To me, the greatest thing about the movie Avatar, by James Cameron, had to be the beautiful, glowing ecosystem of Pandora. Which means I was the perfect person to hear about the actual glowing plants offered by a San Francisco team.

Offered on Kickstarter, the crowd-funding website that hooks up inventive types with folks who have too much disposable money, the glowing Arabidopsis spoke to me. Anthony Evans, the project’s spokesperson on Kickstarter.com, offered backers a package of seeds that, when planted, would sprout a genetically modified plant that would glow on its own. Vegetable bioluminescence.

It sounds like a relatively simple idea. Take the genes that govern bioluminescence and graft them into the genes for a benign plant species. The idea is simple. The implementation, though, is astonishingly complex.

Still, there’s no way I could ignore this possibility. Not only was the whole thing speaking to me, I know that my middle little dude, Zippy the College Boy, believes Avatar is the ultimate expression of film, the best movie ever conceived and produced, so being able to give him a glowing Pandora-like plant. . . Couldn’t pass it up.

Genes for jellyfish bioluminescence inserted into a plant.
Genes for jellyfish bioluminescence inserted into a plant.

Which, it turns out, was a good thing for me. Because just as soon as the glowing plants were funded by more than 8,400 backers, kicking in $484,013 to fund a $65,000 request, Kickstarter banned anyone from giving away any genetically modified organisms.

Firstly, you can see I wasn’t alone. More than 8,400 people backed the project, kicking in more than seven times the amount the creators would have considered a winning goal. Secondly, I understand Kickstarter’s hesitation, but I think an outright ban is a bad idea.

I understand that no one likes the idea of a genetically modified plant running wild. Think about it. If you create a weedy plant that is much better at spreading itself, it could literally overrun entire sections of the country, the world. Think the kudzu plant. Here in the south, the kudzu plant is a green menace, gradually taking over every single inch of land it can reach. Now imagine if someone souped it up. Yikes. Kudzu-World.

Invasive kudzu covers anything in its path.
Invasive kudzu covers anything in its path.

Still, the folks behind this project selected a plant that isn’t weedy, doesn’t spread without human help, and does not receive a significant reproductive advantage from the glowing genetic inserts.

A blanket ban on genetically modified organisms seems like a bit of an overreaction to the possibility of something going wrong. I mean, I’m a big believer that we’re going to need all the help we can get for the human race to help heal the planet we’ve done so much to damage.

Genetically modified organisms might be the only way we have of healing the damage. And cutting off a funding source for dudes who are looking for ways to expand our abilities doesn’t sound very smart to me.

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Sweetness And Light

Sweetness is the one drug we all crave.

Don’t try to tell me any differently, because you’ll be lying.

Even me. I’m not a big sweets person. That is, I’d rather have an extra slice of the entree than a dessert, but. . . Leave a bowl of chocolate pieces sitting out and I’ll have a handful scooped up and be walking off without even noticing it.

Sweet food is the universal appeal. And it sits right along near the throne with that other dietetic nightmare delight: fat. Why else would we love ice cream so much? Combine sweetness and fat and, dudes, you’re got a winner.

And it’s been that way for a long, long time. Because, for a long, long time, fats and sugars have been exceedingly difficult for humans to consume.

For the past 200,000 years or so, fatty and sugary foods were hard for humans to come by and well worth gorging on. Fats help maintain body temperature, sugars provide energy, and craving such food is hardwired: Eating fats and sugars activates reward centers in the brain.

Popular Science, a fantastic magazine with the tagline of “The Future, Now,” recently ran an interesting little article about how our genes might influence our cravings for sweet foods. In addition to things like, if our blood sugar drops, it could trigger a craving for sweet food and that craving also will annihilate our self control — say hello to Krispy Kreme — there’s something in the genes that tells us to eat sweets.I'd eat that.

 Obesity runs in families, and although scientists still don’t know just how much of craving is hereditary and how much is learned, they have located more than 100 genes that seem to be linked to the disease. To evolve out of cravings, we’d need to stop passing down these genes.

The problem with that is that evolution doesn’t work in a straight line. And, in addition, many genes don’t act on a single trait. That is, you might try to eliminate the gene for blue eyes (I’ve never trusted those blueies.), but find that, once that’s gone, the gene that coded for that blue protein also assisted the production of the enzyme that enabled those folks to digest protein, say.

Evolution is a messy process that plays out over millions of years. It typically lags far behind changes in species behavior. Until about 50 years ago, craving fats and sugars actually helped us survive. Then fast food became abundant, and the number of obese people in the U.S. tripled between 1960 and 2007. Half a century is “just not enough time to counteract millennia,” says Katie Hinde, a human evolutionary biologist at Harvard University.

So, really, it looks like if we want to master our cravings for fat and sugar, we’re going to have to stop hoping that the evolution fairy will come by and wave shir’s magic wand and wipe away the problem. If we want to stop eating too much sugar and fat, it’s going to be up to that three-pound wrinkled mass we’ve got up between our ears.

Self-control, dudes. That’s where the solution lies.

I don’t know about you, but I have a feeling I’m going to be more part of the problem than part of the solution.

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How Bigfoot Fits Into His Genes

Bigfoot still is a mystery, dudes. I know. It’s a bit shocking.

Especially considering all the hoo-ha a couple of months ago when a researcher claimed she had a some viable Bigfoot cells and was on the cusp of being able to sequence the entire Bigfoot genome.

You might recall, reputable scientists did just that a number of years ago, under the aegis of the Human Genome Project. We know where every single AGCT goes in our randy little genes. That knowledge should enable us, in the years to come, to delicately craft designer medications that will work best for you, or for that guy over there. Or maybe that dudette in the front row.

Handy thing, knowing yer entire genome.

Imagine my excitement when I learned that Dr. Melba Ketchum, a Texas-based forensic scientist and the face in front of the genome-sequencing effort, announced to a disbelieving world that she was getting ready to map the elusive possibly-primate’s genetic sequence.

Of course, the disbelieving LAME-stream science community poo-pooed the idea. So Ketchum and the others in her group, took their paper describing the Bigfoot genome and got it published in a scientific journal: the online De Novo . In case you don’t keep up with the scientific literature and find you don’t know the name of this journal, that’s because, prior to this paper being published, it didn’t actually exist. And the only paper that the De Novo ever printed was Ketchum’s paper on Bigfoot.

That’s right. Ketchum and her group purchased an existing journal, renamed it De Novo and then published their paper. A paper which: conclusively proves that the Sasquatch exist as an extant hominin and are a direct maternal descendant of modern humans.”

According to Ketchum and her group, the DNA shows a distinct speciation effect, showing that Bigfoot is not human, but a mix of human and something else.

So, yeah. That’s that. Case closed. Bigfoot exists and is the product of relatively recent intermingling between humans and some other primate. By relatively recently, of course, we’re talking tens of thousands of years. Geologic time, you see. Unfortunately for Ketchum and the rest of her group, there’s a whole bunch of scientists who don’t see it the same way she does, including John Timmer, the science editor for Ars Technica.

Timmer and other biologists looked at the samples and saw contamination of the sample, bad science and decomposition of the supposed DNA sample. In other words, it wouldn’t work. Period.

My initial analysis suggested that the “genome sequence” was an artifact, the product of a combination of contamination, degradation, and poor assembly methods. And every other biologist I showed it to reached the same conclusion. Ketchum couldn’t disagree more. “We’ve done everything in our power to make sure the paper was absolutely above-board and well done,” she told Ars. “I don’t know what else we could have done short of spending another few years working on the genome. But all we wanted to do was prove they existed, and I think we did that.”

Timmer has a fantastic article that goes through Ketchum’s research, talking with the good doctor herself, step by step and points out where things got a little wonky.

This is a great example of public science journalism. He’s not out there to make fun of Ketchum. He’s not some sort of rabid disbeliever out to debunk the “TRUTH” (notice the all-caps. Yeah, it’s that kind of truth.). He’s a scientist, a journalist and a curious man.

Go check it out. It makes for a fascinating read.

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