The Science of Attraction: Why Do We Fall in Love?

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Picture Credit: Ann Cutting | TIME Magazine

The really cynical people in the world like to say that love is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed and then think to themselves how logical and scientific they are. These people also tend to be in high school or just happen to be very lonely individuals. Either way, science is not that clean-cut about the topic of love. So, in acknowledgment that Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, let’s see what science has uncovered so far about humanity’s oldest and most hackneyed phenomenon.

When the word love is usually brought up in a scientific setting, most people refer to the rules and reasoning behind romantic attraction: What physical properties make a person desirable. In regard to physical attractiveness, many researchers have concluded that symmetry plays the biggest role, a claim backed by numerous studies and years of investigations. Scientists have found that this measurement of beauty holds true across various cultures and even in different species of animals .

The general consensus appears to be that having a symmetrical-looking face serves as a good indicator of robust health and ideal genes, which prospective romantic partners subconsciously pick up on. Psychologist Dr. William Brown at the Brunel University in the U.K. remarks, “In animals with two sides that were designed by natural selection to be symmetrical, subtle departures from symmetry may reflect poor development or exposure to environmental or genetic stress. In many species, these departures are related to poor health, lower survival, and fewer offspring.”

Interestingly, there has been some pushback against this consensus in recent times. Artist and photographer challenged this notion of symmetry as attractive by creating portraits of models whose faces have been photoshopped to be mirror images of the left and right sides of their faces. In a study performed by Nicholas Pound, another psychologist from Brunel University, results showed that facial symmetry in adolescents did not correlate with rates of childhood illness, as many researchers presumed. However, the most interesting counter-argument insists that the perfect face doesn’t stem from symmetry but from the Golden Ratio, an ancient Greek mathematical ratio of 1.618:1 that has been observed in the proportions of flowers, spiral galaxies, famous Greek art and attractive faces.

But beyond just physical appearances, science has found other explanations behind why one person would fall in love with someone. For instance, how you smell could determine who you attract, that is to say, the pheromones you emit. Widely used in the Animal Kingdom, pheromones are scent-bearing chemicals that we secrete in sweat and other bodily fluids that influence the behavior of others. Humans also utilize pheromones and researchers believe that these chemical signals play an important role in sexual attraction. In one study, researchers found that women who smelled sweaty undershirts worn by men could accurately judge their attractiveness. In a different study, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin discovered that men could determine when a woman was at her most fertile period in her menstrual cycle based on her pheromones. When these men were asked to smell T-shirts worn by women, they judged the shirts worn by fertile women to be more “pleasant” and “sexy.” In both cases, it’s likely that these types of scent detection happen subconsciously.

However, it is important to note that the research into human pheromones is still incomplete. Researchers have yet to identify specific chemical compounds that spark physical attraction in people, at least not any with a reliable scientific foundation. The closest they got was with androstadienone, a steroid derived from testosterone that has been reported to “make women feel more relaxed.” But the lack of solid evidence hasn’t stopped the perfume industry. You can find all sorts of “pheromone-based” perfumes on the Internet that claim to attract the opposite sex. The more expensive, popular ones have countless positive reviews that praise its effectiveness, but I’m more inclined to believe that this is because of the placebo effect.

There are also theories floating around that romantic attraction is largely guided by genetics and the goal of finding a mate who will help produce healthier offspring. For instance, researchers from the University of Western Australia suspect that a person’s body odor could provide clues about that person’s immune system. According to their study, a woman’s sweat contains chemical information about her histocompatibility, or MHC, genes. This information also subconsciously notifies members of the opposite sex about the type of immune system she has. To the researchers’ surprise, not only did the female participants with the most varied MHC genes appear more attractive to the male participants, but they also had the greatest number of sexual partners. This is most likely because a person with varied MHC genes also has a diverse immune system, a trait associated with disease resistance.

So far, all these research studies seem to push the notion that romantic attraction is mainly outside of our control, which may dishearten several readers. However, all these studies have another common thread: They’re about infatuation, not love.

Everything from facial symmetry to pheromones to histocompatibility genes focuses on the love-at-first-sight aspect of romance, the instantaneous physical attraction that occurs when two people meet for the first time. These factors might answer why you have a premature crush on someone but say nothing about what helps a relationship survive conflict or last for a long time. Just because two people are biologically compatible doesn’t mean that their personalities will mesh well. How regrettable that science is not invulnerable to the “love at first sight” mentality that plague movies and literature.

Of course, I’m exaggerating: There are obviously some studies focused on maintaining a relationship, not just infatuation. However, the little that I could find was surrounded by an ocean of research on the immediate sensation of falling in love. That’s not surprising, since falling in love is easy and fun, while keeping a relationship together is stressful and aggravating. But even though your DNA or your immune system or your pheromones might determine who you choose as your significant other, those biological factors change over time. What will happen when you’re no longer biologically compatible with your partner? Ultimately, one must make an effort to truly understand the other person’s personality and values and build a foundation of trust and friendship beforehand. Science may explain what gives love its sparks but it can’t provide any real shortcuts.

Originally published on February 8, 2017, in The Miscellany NewsResearchers illuminate the science of falling in love

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Unlocking Axolotl: The Path Towards Regenerative Medicine

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Picture Credit: Utaranews.com

Out of all the various superpowers found in comic books and video games, regeneration is among the most astonishing. The idea of being able to regrow an arm or a leg whenever one is lost in an accident exemplifies a sort of uncanny magical ability straight out of science fiction. However, this ability serves as an adaptive trait for several different animals around the world.

While notable examples include sea stars and certain species of lizards, the most prominent kinds of animals known for their regenerative capabilities are salamanders, a species known for its ability to regrow entire limbs and regenerate parts of major organs like their heart, their eyes and their spinal cord. They possess such impressive regeneration abilities that immunologist James Godwin of the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute at Monash University in Melbourne calls them “a template of what perfect regeneration looks like.”

One specific salamander species that deserves special attention is the axolotl, also known as a Mexican salamander (Ambystoma mexicanum). This amphibian, in particular, has a one-of-a-kind capacity for regeneration and is known for being able to regrow multiple structures like limbs, jaws, skin and even parts of its brain without evidence of scarring throughout their lives.

The sheer amount of damage that an axolotl can recover from is absolutely extraordinary.

“You can cut the spinal cord, crush it, remove a segment, and it will regenerate. You can cut the limbs at any level–the wrist, the elbow, the upper arm–and it will regenerate, and it’s perfect. There is nothing missing, There’s no scarring on the skin at the site of amputation, every tissue is replaced. They can regenerate the same limb 50, 60, 100 times. And every time: perfect,” remarked Professor Stephane Roy at the University of Montreal.

As a result, the axolotl is widely used as a model organism for studying regeneration. But this begs the question: can this amazing regeneration ability be somehow transferred to humans? If human beings had the same regenerative capacity as axolotls, the benefits would far surpass that of regrowing an arm or a leg or a finger. People would be able to repair or regrow their internal organs whenever an organ failure occurs without having to rely on intensive surgery.

For instance, victims of car accidents may end up with major injuries to their backbone, their ribcage and all the soft major organs within, but a regeneration ability equivalent to that of an axolotl may have them walking normally after a mere few months. Not only that, the axolotl is over 1,000 times more resistant to cancer than mammals. Finding the source of this salamander’s regeneration capabilities could lead to unimaginable developments in modern medicine.

However, while the idea sounds fantastic, the execution is much more difficult than it looks. Compared to amphibians, humans have very limited regenerative capabilities, restricted primarily to their skin. So far, research into salamanders has led scientists to pinpoint the blastema, a mass of immature cells typically found in the early stages of an organism’s development, as the key to regeneration. Essentially, when an adult salamander limb is amputated, the outermost layer of skin covers up the wound and sends signals to nearby cells, which prompts the mature cells to form the blastema. From there, the immature cells start to divide and differentiate into specific muscle and nerve cells until a different signal or some form of memory tells the cells to stop regenerating.

For scientists to replicate this effect in humans, they use stem cells, which are also cells that can also differentiate into any type of cell in the body and divide to produce more stem cells. These cells are also known as pluripotent cells since they are capable of developing into several different cell types. However, the blastema that salamanders produce is not completely embryonic. Instead, scientists have found that the cells used for regeneration become slightly less mature versions of the cells they’ve been before. This means researchers don’t have to force adult tissue into becoming pluripotent, making the task a little easier to implement in humans.

The latest development in this field has come from a group of scientists from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), who have designed a new stem cell repair system based on the method used by salamanders to regenerate limbs. According to hematologist John Pimanda, the new technique involves reprogramming bone and fat cells into induced multipotent stem cells (iMS), which can be used to regenerate muscle, bone and cartilage. The team first extract fat cells from the human body, treat them with various growth factors and compounds like 5-Azacytidine (AZA) to turn them into stem cells, and then inject them back into the body to heal tissue.

“This technique is a significant advance on many of the current unproven stem cell therapies, which have shown little or no objective evidence they contribute directly to new tissue formation,” stated Pimanda.

So far, the new technique has been successful in mice, and human trials are expected to begin by late 2017. But several obstacles still stand in the way. One primary challenge is preventing the cells from becoming cancerous as they go through regeneration. Salamanders typically don’t face the risk of malignant tumors whenever they regenerate tissue, and as stated earlier, the axolotl is in fact 1,000 times more resistant to cancer than mammals, despite how often it regenerates body parts. Right now, Pimanda and his team are making sure that the technique leads to controlled tissue repair and that cell regeneration doesn’t spiral out of control.

With progress being steadily made in regenerating bone and muscle, it may be only a matter of time until we reach the regenerative capabilities of salamanders and have self-repairing organs in the future. A revolutionary development like that would certainly save lives and help all types of patients from those suffering from third-degree burns to those who desperately need an organ donor. Until then, researchers will continue to study salamanders and their incredible regeneration abilities to help guide them towards this goal.

Originally published on November 30, 2016, in The Miscellany NewsResearch on regeneration proves beneficial

What the Media Didn’t Mention About the Male Contraceptive Study

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Picture Credit: Outside Magazine

Several days ago, you may have seen a handful of news articles floating around on the internet that made a lot of people, especially women, angry and upset.

According to these articles, scientists were making progress in creating a male contracep­tive that was 96 percent effective in preventing pregnancy in female partners. This was won­derful news for many women who have long carried the burden of birth control and its side effects–some extraordinarily harmful.

A male contraceptive would finally shift some of that responsibility onto men. However, the study came to halt after, according to one news article, “Men taking it reported negative side effects including mood swings, an altered libido and acne.”

Naturally, the sheer hypocrisy of the situa­tion outraged many women who had to suffer those symptoms every day. Their outrage, from headlines and social media posts alone, was completely justified. Countless Facebook and Twitter posts denounced the blatant double standard in halting the study for safety concerns when women were expected to endure the same side effects without complaining. As the news spread, the onslaught of criticism grew, and rightfully so. This news serves as another reminder of how women face unfair treatment and societal pressures that men don’t have to think about. However, the media coverage of this study has been disturbingly misleading. Although the people’s outrage against the men in the study is very understandable, the media is still undeniably guilty for leaving out several significant details and grossly oversimplifying the results in exchange for brief sensationalism.

The male contraceptive in question is an in­jected hormonal drug that reversibly suppresses the sperm count in men. In order to test the drug’s effectiveness, the re­searchers enlisted a total of 320 healthy male volunteers and repeatedly administered the drug into the person’s arm for an entire year. Just like those articles on Facebook claim, the male participants did experience mood swings, muscle pain and acne as part of the side effects of the drug throughout the experiment.

However, what popular media coverage failed to report on was the sheer scope of these side effects. Over the course of the trial, the 320 male participants reported a total 1,491 adverse events and researchers determined that 900 of those events were caused by the hormonal drug.

“These side effect rate is pretty high with this new study of men when compared with contra­ception studies for women…For example and perspective, a study comparing the birth con­trol patch with the pill found a serious adverse event rate of 2%. The pill reduces acne for 70% of women and in studies with the Mirena IUD the rate of acne is 6.8%,” explained obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunter. In the male contraceptive study, more than 45 percent of the men got acne as a verifiable result of the drug.

In addition, a total of eight men out of the 320 participants were not back to “normal sperm counts” a year after they stopped receiving the drug. One male volunteer was rendered infertile due to the treatment, because his sperm count failed to return to normal even after four years had passed since his last injection.

Now here’s what the majority of the news outlets didn’t mention in their report: The study wasn’t halted because the male participants couldn’t handle the side effects. In reality, an in­dependent, third-party peer-review committee found that it didn’t make sense to continue the study, because “the risks the study participants outweighed the potential benefits to the study participants.” The actual male partic­ipants involved in the study had no power or authority to shut down the entire experiment.

Not only that, only 20 of the 320 men discon­tinued the study, one of whom had to stop due to a dangerous increase in blood pressure.

Despite the various adverse events and the clinically intensive regimen of the study, more than 75 percent of the participants stated that they were either satisfied or very satisfied with the outcome of the experiment.

About 24 percent felt neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, and only 1.3 percent of the men in the study answered that they were unsatisfied. Similarly, the survey showed that over 80 percent of the men answered that they would continue to use a similar male contraceptive and only 1.3 percent of the participants said no. The researchers themselves concluded that “male participants and their partners found this [birth control method] to be highly acceptable at the end of the trial, even after being made aware of the early termination of the study intervention.”

Despite this information, news outlets every­where failed to cover the entire study truthfully and instead chose to run incendiary headlines that made the male volunteers appear spineless and pathetic: “Men Abandon Groundbreak­ing Study on Male Birth Control, Citing ‘Mood Changes’” (Broadly, 10.29.2016), “Male contra­ceptive pill works—but side effects halt trial” (New Scientist, 10.27.2016), “Male Contraceptive Injection Halted For Same Side Effects Women Have Suffered For Years” (Elle, 10.28.2016), “Yes, contraceptives have side effects—and it’s time for men to put up with them too” (Independent, 10.28.2016), “Men Quit Male Birth Control Study Because It Was Giving Them Mood Swings. Welcome to the club, dudes. Also: WOMAN UP” (Cosmopolitan, 10.30.2016).

Personally, I don’t blame the Internet for be­ing misled. The fault lies on the news outlets for either not paying attention to what they were reporting on or purposefully twisting the facts in the study to create a sensationalist headline. It goes to show how important it is for newspa­pers and magazines to write a headline and an article that accurately represents the content of the original source.

On the bright side, a lot of the resulting com­plaints are right. Scientists should put more effort into reducing the side effects of female birth control. As I mentioned earlier, women are unfairly burdened with the pain and suffer­ing that accompanies birth control. In addition, the possible side effects of the female birth con­trol definitely shouldn’t be brushed aside and ignored. Research indicates that birth control pills increase the risk of blood clots by about three or four times. That is terrifying. I am cer­tain that the public wouldn’t care as much if the participants in the male contraceptive research study were women instead of men. While I do not condone the blatant inaccuracy and mis­leading nature of the articles covering the male contraceptive study, I do think that this sort of public outrage might be a good way to finally start the conversation of fixing a broken system.

Originally published on November 9, 2016, in The Miscellany NewsSpurious reports on contraception pervade social media

Why So Many Men Believe They’re Inherently Better at Science Than Women (And Why They’re Wrong)

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Picture Credit: biotecnika.org

Earlier this year, researchers from the Uni­versity of Washington wanted to see how male and female students view each other in a science classroom setting. Using a total of 1,700 students enrolled in the same undergraduate biology course, the researchers surveyed each individual. One of the questions asked them to name the classmates they considered most knowledgeable in the subject.

The result? Even after accounting for differ­ences in GPA and outspokenness, the research­ers found that male students are more likely to view other guys as top students even though other female students may have a higher GPA, while female students reported guys and girls almost equally. As the published study describes it, “[F]or an outspoken female to be nominated by males at the same level as an out­spoken male, her performance would need to be over three-quarters of a GPA point higher than the male’s.”

Clearly, whether unintentional or not, the be­lief that men are better and smarter than women in science and technology aggressively persists like cancer, even with the arrival of a new gen­eration. In order to combat this dangerous way of thinking, institutions all across the United States, including the White House, have been encouraging young women more than ever to break free from negative cultural stereotypes and become more active in the STEM world. But despite the fact that women are known to earn more college and graduate degrees than men, the U.S. Census Bureau found in 2011 that wom­en made up only 26 percent of the science work­force.

Why aren’t more women participating in STEM? Unfortunately, some people are taking this as a sign that women simply aren’t as bio­logically wired for science or math as men.

Yes, that’s right. These people exist in 2016, and they say that science is on their side. You may not hear them make these claims publicly, but trust me, they can be found expressing their candid thoughts all over the Internet. For the longest time, this mentality has utterly baffled me to no end. Who just writes off half of the entire world population as forever inferior in terms of scientific accomplishment?

Essentially, their argument is that, due to in­herent biological differences, women lack the drive and capacity to succeed in the “hard” sci­ences like physics and computer science. If that wasn’t enough, there’s this unpleasant ethos that often accompanies this type of argument where­in anyone who disagrees is someone who val­ues political correctness over cold, hard facts. I don’t know why they believe that science is sole­ly on their side, but I have some bones to pick with this type of nonsense. So, allow me to use some cold, hard facts to argue why this childish ego-boosting is seriously ill-founded.

First of all, by the early 20th century, the sci­entific community had largely accepted that gender plays no role in intelligence. In fact, Lew­is Terman, a pioneer in educational psychology who’s best known for his revision of the Stan­ford-Binet IQ test, stated in 1916 that he found young girls just as smart and knowledgeable as young boys.

The notion that the male mind is smarter than the female mind wasn’t really reintroduced into the scientific community until 2005 when British psychologists Richard Lynn and Paul Irwing ar­gued that men have higher general intelligence than women due to differences in brain physi­ology and IQ scores (ScienceDirect, “A conver­sation with Richard Lynn,” 02.02.2011). More specifically, Lynn and Irwing argued their case by stating that males have bigger brains than women and that males have consistently scored higher on IQ tests than women.

This widely disputed research is most likely where those men-are-superior-to-women sup­porters picked up most of their “scientific facts.” However, years of research following this con­troversy have proven otherwise.

For one thing, having a larger brain does not accurately reflect greater intelligence. While differences in brain size do partially explain why men are general­ly taller than women, these differences do not determine which gender is smarter. On the topic of brain phys­iology, researchers from the University of Iowa actually found that female brains tend to have a slightly higher proportion of gray matter than male brains, a neurological component involved in memory, sensory perception and decision making. In other words, a female brain is no less capable of abstract analysis than a male brain.

In terms of IQ scores, I’m even more skeptical. Despite how much they have been used over the past few decades, IQ tests have been criticized for not accurately reflecting the test-taker’s in­telligence. In fact, a series of studies have recent­ly cast doubt upon their validity. According to a 2012 study performed by a team of researchers from around the world, the IQ test fails to ac­curately predict people’s intelligence.

“It has always seemed to be odd that we like to call the human brain the most complex known object in the Universe, yet many of us are still prepared to accept that we can measure brain function by doing a few so-called IQ tests,” com­mented Dr. Roger Highfield, the director of ex­ternal affairs at the Science Museum in London. Even if IQ tests are reliable, it wouldn’t matter anyway, because women have already scored higher on IQ tests than men as early as 2012.

Furthermore, a study published recently in 2015 discovered that there really is no such thing as a “male” or “female” brain. A team of scientists at Tel Aviv University in Israel conducted the first ever search for sex difference across the entire human brain and found that most people have a mix of both “male” and “female” brain features.

Essentially, the idea that human brains can be separated based on gender is largely a myth. So, can we stop saying that men are more biologi­cally hard-wired for STEM fields than women because the scientific research itself has shown that isn’t true.

However, the most important thing to remem­ber is that, even if gender differences do exist, we should NEVER discourage the pursuit of science in anyone. What can we possibly gain from doing that? In an era in which science and technology are dramatically shaping our society, we need as many people as possible, men and women alike, to become involved in the latest breakthroughs and discoveries. Shouldn’t the universal goal be for everyone to develop a pas­sion or at least an appreciation for science, from biology to engineering? Enough with the embar­rassing playground squabbles. Let’s treat each other as equally respectable, bright and capable individuals.

Originally published on October 26, 2016, in The Miscellany NewsScience community must embrace gender equality

Should We Be Worried About GMOs?

 

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Picture Credit: Michael Gregor | NutritionFacts.org

Among the many controversial issues that science has generated over the years, the debate over genetically modified food has been quite popular in the public, leading many to throw their hands up in disgust and fume over the topic for the rest of the day. According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, only 37 percent of U.S. adults said that it’s general­ly safe to consume genetically modified foods as opposed to the 57 percent of U.S. adults who disagreed. These opinions are inherently contradicted by the vast amounts of scientific literature which claim that GMOs are not dangerous whatsoever.

By definition, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) refer to food that comes from geneti­cally engineered organisms. Essentially, scientists select and transfer specific genes from one organism to another to produce a plant with a desirable trait like pest resistance or higher con­centrations of vitamins.

The source of the controversy comes from the belief that these “Frankenfoods” pose a threat to our health and well-being. The anti-GMO side has argued repeatedly that the foreign genetic material from bacteria and viruses that are add­ed into the GM food could find its way into our digestive tract once we eat them. They worry that tampering with the genetics of what we eat could potentially introduce harmful substances or even a genetic mutation into our body. It is important to note that opponents of GMOs are not just limited to health-conscious parents and eco-activists.

“I don’t want to eat those foods that have been sprayed or modified and don’t want my grandchildren to eat them either–I don’t think they’ve been proven that they’re safe [sic], and in fact, it’s been proven that they’re unsafe,” stated renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, who has been actively opposing GMOs.

But despite the facade of being a complex, multifaceted issue, the actual debate over these GM foods is as clear cut as it gets.

The World Health Organization states as follows: “GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assess­ments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the con­sumption of such foods by the general popula­tion in the countries where they have been ap­proved.”

And the World Health Organization isn’t the only scientific institution that is making this claim. The majority of credible organizations agree that genetically modified food is not dan­gerous or even remotely harmful. The American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all confirmed that GM foods do not pose a threat to our health. Not only that, hundreds and hundreds of studies have all reached that same conclusion.

“[GM food] has increased farmer safety by al­lowing them to use less pesticide. It has raised the output of corn, cotton and soy by 20 to 30 percent, allowing some people to survive who would not have without it,” says David Zilber­man, an agricultural and environmental econ­omist at U.C. Berkeley. “If it were more widely adopted around the world, the price [of food] would go lower, and fewer people would die of hunger.”

However, many people on the anti-GMO side remain unconvinced. Instead, several crit­ics have pointed to the results of a 2012 study published in the Journal of American Science as proof of GMOs’ harmful effects. In this exper­iment, researchers fed rats GM corn and non-GM corn and found that the rats who ate GM corn lost or gained weight and ex­perienced changes in their organs and biochem­istry. However, what they don’t mention is that the researcher leading the study, Gilles-Éric Séralini, has been a longtime advocate against GMOs and has been accused of personal bias in his analysis. In fact, the lack of key details in his experiment was so questionable that the European Food Safety Authority dismissed the study’s findings entirely.

More importantly, we have been eating food containing genetically modified ingredients all our lives, and not a single case of medical illness has occurred as a result of genetic alterations. Ironically, all the major deaths caused by food have come from non-GM crops. In 2011, Germany experienced one of the worst E.coli outbreaks in world history thanks to organic bean sprouts that were contaminat­ed by the bacteria. A total of 3,517 people were infect­ed thanks to the contamination, with more than 39 people dead and about 839 people stricken with a deadly kidney disease known as hemo­lytic uremic syndrome.

Yet, the anti-GMO lobby argues that adding foreign DNA to food ingredients just isn’t natu­ral. But that isn’t true either. It’s not uncommon for viruses to inject their own DNA into crops and other organisms. Rather, it’s been a com­mon occurrence that has persisted for millions of years. For instance, pea aphids contain genes from fungi and wheat itself is a cross-species hy­brid.

Just recently, scientists discovered that the world’s first GMO wasn’t manufactured by hu­mans; nature created it 8,000 years ago with sweet potatoes. Beforehand, sweet potatoes weren’t edible. It was because of bacteria from the soil in­serted their genes into the plant that sweet po­tatoes became the popular food item that our ancestors farmed.

“When GM critics say that genes don’t cross the species barrier in nature, that’s just simple ignorance. Mother Nature does it all the time,” states Alan McHughen, a plant molecular genet­icist at U.C. Riverside.

So why do people hold onto their fears about GMOs? Are they worried that the industry lacks proper safety tests and regulations and that humanity’s hubris will crumble once a mutant plant causes a worldwide epidemic? Again, this is just ill-founded paranoia.

“In response to what they believed was an information gap, a team of Italian scientists summarized 1,783 studies about the safety and environmental impacts of GMO foods … The re­searchers couldn’t find a single credible exam­ple demonstrated that GM foods pose any harm to humans or animals,” reported Jon Entine, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy at the University of California, Davis.

All the science shows that genetically modi­fied food is safe. Scientific institutions have said they are safe, the FDA has approved it and GMOs have occurred naturally over evolutionary history. At this point, fear and paranoia drive this contro­versy, not science.

Originally published on September 28, 2016, in The Miscellany NewsRhetoric of paranoia pervades discourse around GMOs

The New Age of DNA: How CRISPR Will Change the World

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Picture Credit: Samantha Lee | Business Insider

Imagine traveling back in time to the early 1900’s and trying to explain to someone about the modern computer. It’s a box with buttons and a screen that allows people to access and manipulate all sorts of information. They would have no idea what you’re talking about and would brush it off as some sort of fancy mechanical encyclopedia. You’d want to tell them just how much this invention has changed the world, but you might have trouble quantifying the sheer impact of this technological cornerstone of history.

Now, imagine a technological breakthrough of that same magnitude in the twenty-first century—except instead of computers, it’s gene editing. Thanks to the invention of CRISPR-Cas9, we are currently at the cusp of a new DNA revolution. Yet, most people know very little or nothing about what CRISPR is and what it can do.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a unique gene editing tool that allows scientists to cut out segments of DNA from the genome of any organism and move them around or replace them entirely with stunning precision.

Similar to how bacteria slice off pieces of DNA from invading viruses to absorb, CRISPR relies on a specific RNA molecule to locate the desired sequence of DNA and slice it out. To perform this incision, CRISPR uses a protein known as Cas9, a special enzyme guided by RNA to target and snip out segments of DNA. As co-discoverer Jennifer Doudna, a professor of biochemistry at the University of California, Berkley, describes it, CRISPR is essentially “a molecular scalpel for genomes.” Think of it as the cut-and-paste tool in Microsoft Word except with the basic building blocks of life instead of numbers and text.

“You’re only limited by your imagination,” said Dustin Rubinstein, the director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Biotechnology Center. He envisions that CRISPR can transform practically any science of medical field or discipline from cancer research and neuroscience to chemical engineering and energy production.

Some readers may be a little puzzled over the enormous fanfare in science circles around gene editing and CRISPR. Sure, this technology seems groundbreaking, but why should anyone other than scientists care? CRISPR may turn out to be one of many scientific breakthroughs featured in the news that soon disappears from the public eye.

CRISPR is not just a passing science trend. The tool allows humans to modify and rearrange DNA, which determines how the bodies of all living things function. Depending on what part of the genome the changes are made, they can be permanent. It’s possible that tweaking done in an animal or human can be passed down through generations. A tool of this magnitude, like the modern computer, has infinite possibilities.

“It is totally changing how we scientists genetically modified cells and even organisms. What used to take years and potentially millions of dollars can be done in weeks or months for a few thousand bucks,” said Paul Knoepfler, an associate professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Human Anatomy at the University of California, Davis.

CRISPR has the potential to curtail or even eradicate certain diseases. It’s been shown to be capable of removing the DNA of the virus responsible for causing HIV from a patient’s own genome. In another example, researchers are planning to use CRISPR to treat and possibly cure blindness. After scientists successfully cut out a genetic mutation responsible for blindness in mice, biotechnology companies such as Editas Medicine began devising a way to use a similar technique on humans. This is the first step in a long road that could eventually lead to the eradication of many hereditary diseases, from Huntington’s disease to sickle-cell anemia.

So far, scientists have been experimenting with gene editing on a wide range of areas in order to address problems that have long plagued humankind. Last year, scientists genetically modified the genome of mosquitoes to make them resistant to Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite responsible for causing malaria. With CRISPR’s precision and accuracy, the researchers were able to insert the necessary genes into the mosquitoes’ DNA. The mosquitoes could then replicate and pass down those engineered genes onto their offspring even after mating normal mosquitoes, creating a lineage of malaria-resistant mosquitoes.

As further evidence of CRISPR’s futuristic capabilities, Harvard geneticist and CRISPR pioneer George Church believes he can use the tool to genetically modify endangered Indian elephants into “woolly mammoths” capable of surviving in the freezing wilderness of Siberia. As a first step, Church has inserted the mammoth genes for small ears, subcutaneous fat, and hair length and color into the DNA of lab grown elephant cells. Other scientists have expressed hopes to resurrect extinct species such as the passenger pigeon (Jurassic Park, anyone?). These ideas may teeter on the border of science fiction, but CRISPR makes it conceivable.

That’s why it’s important to understand the latest developments in CRISPR-Cas9 technology, both its advantages and flaws. Few people are aware of the emerging CRISPR revolution. According to a 2016 report by the Pew Research Center, 68% of adults responded that they were “somewhat” worried or “very” worried about human gene editing. But most people have no idea what they are worried about; about 90% knew little or nothing about gene editing in the first place.

Many respondents expressed doubts about using gene editing on human babies to reduce the risk of serious diseases. “It’s messing with nature. Nothing good can come from that,” stated one participant. Another talked about how gene editing would “open the door to more manipulation of humans in an attempt to create a superior race.”

Without more comprehensive understanding about how CRISPR works and how the scientific community is embracing the revolution, it’s easy for misconceptions to form. Once unsubstantiated fear and paranoia take hold, scientists will have a much tougher time implementing the research needed to save countless lives.

The research shows that more knowledge leads to more understanding and acceptance. Pew found that those who were somewhat familiar with gene editing were more inclined to view it as something they might consider using for their child if it were available. We need personal engagement for people to actively seek out information about this tool, if CRISPR is to fulfill its promise.

Like the early computer, CRISPR-Cas9 has incredible potential. Yes, it poses technical challenges and critics have suggested several frightening scenarios if it is misused, but there are many life-changing opportunities as well. We have the chance to challenge various types of cancer at a molecular level, address the environmental damage we’ve caused on the planet, slow the spread of disease and disability and improve the quality of life for everyone.

It’s the responsibility of everyone to be informed about the scientific and ethical issues surrounding its development.

“This is a remarkable technology, with many great uses. But if you are going to do anything as fateful as rewriting the germ line, you’d better be able to tell me there is a strong reason to do it. And you’d better be able to say that society made a choice to do this—that unless there’s broad agreement, it is not going to happen,” stated Eric Lander, the president and founding director of the Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT.

Originally published on October 4, 2016, in Genetic Literacy ProjectHow CRISPR could change the world—And why that frightens many of us

Nanopore Sequencing & the Problem With Patents

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Picture Credit: DNA | Public Domain Pictures

In 2003, researchers from all over the world achieved one of the greatest scientific endeavors of their time: identifying and mapping out the entire human genome. With over 20,000 genes analyzed, the scientific community reaped the benefits of the age of genomics, where scientists could identify the thousands of nucleotide base pairs involved with specific genetic diseases like Huntington’s and pinpoint the mutations that underlie different forms of cancer.

But now, a device from Oxford Nanopore Technologies could bring the same power of DNA sequencing from the laboratory into the palm of your hand. It’s called the MinION and it can sequence the DNA of any given sample in a matter of hours.

For decades, conventional DNA sequencing was widely regarded as a tedious, time-consuming process. In order to identify the genome of a particular sample, a researcher would have to create numerous identical copies of the DNA molecules, break each of those copies into tiny pieces for the machine to read, sequence each fragment individually and finally reassemble those pieces together again. It’s the equivalent to reading a book by shredding it to read each word separately and then taping the pages back together again. In addition, this cumbersome process involved expensive machines the size of refrigerators and took days or weeks to run.

Due to these practical limitations, many researchers have to rely on the products and services of large corporations to obtain the DNA sequence of their samples. Today, the one that currently dominates the sequencing market is Illumina, Inc., a corporate giant worth billions of dollars. At the moment, Illumina provides machines for almost every large sequencing center in the world and now has an almost complete monopoly in the industry. However, Oxford Nanopore Technologies intends to bring down this powerful behemoth with a revolutionary new way of reading DNA called nanopore sequencing, which identifies the nucleotide base pairs directly without breaking apart the DNA molecule.

The idea is rather brilliant. A nanopore is simply a very tiny hole, about 2.5 nanometers wide. Nanopore sequencing relies on the use of an incredibly thin synthetic membrane with numerous nanopores as well as nanopore sensors. When the membrane is submerged in liquid by itself and a current is ran through, a steady electrical pattern is measured as ions pass through the tiny holes.

These patterns change once a DNA sample is placed on the membrane. When the electrical current pulls a DNA molecule through a nanopore, the nucleotide bases block the pore and stop some of the ions from passing by. This blockage alters the current that the sensor is reading and ultimately causes the electrical pattern to dip. What makes this method so effective is that each nucleotide base of DNA blocks the pore in different ways and generates a unique and identifiable change in the current. In other words, one can identify the DNA sequence by simply reading the various spikes in the electrical pattern.

In addition to its speed, easy usage and portability, the MinION also boasts a 99.99 percent accuracy based on a performance of 90 percent without any false positives. Not only that, Oxford Nanopore Technologies set the price of their new, revolutionary sequencing gadget to a mere $1,000. When the MinION was first revealed to the world in 2012, one scientist tweeted: “I felt a great disturbance in the force, as if a million Illumina investors cried out in pain.”

The idea of genetically identifying any organic substance at any place and time has enormous implications. A DNA sequencer like MinION could not only be used in a lab but also in the field with little to no difficulties. During the Ebola outbreak in 2015, microbiologist Nick Loman used his newly-bought MinION to track the progress of the epidemic in real time while other scientists had to wait weeks for the results of their analysis to arrive.

For something as time-sensitive as a deadly epidemic, nanopore sequencing could save tens of thousands of lives. Not only that, Oxford Nanopore aims to make their product available to everyone everywhere. From NASA astronauts in space to high school students, the company envisions a future where DNA sequencing devices can become like telescopes, a formerly expensive scientific instrument that is now available to the everyday consumer.

Unsurprisingly, Illumina is trying everything in its power to stop MinION’s momentum. Last February, the sequencing industry monopolist filed several lawsuits against Oxford Nanopore Technologies claiming that the British company committed patent infringement by using bacteria-derived pores known as Mycobacterium smegmatis porin (Msp) to create their synthetic membrane.

At the moment, Illumina holds the patents for any system that use these Msp. Oxford Nanopore responded almost immediately, accusing the corporate giant of acting on unsubstantiated speculation to prevent the MinION from ever reaching the market all so that Illumina can maintain its monopoly.

This move by Illumina illustrates just one of numerous legal issues that stand in the way of scientific progress. The scientific community is often plagued by patent aggregators, people or companies who enforce patent rights to make a profit or keep such patents away from those who may pose a threat against them. Despite not using their patents for research or manufacturing purposes, these entities prey on smaller companies to force them out of business. Never having proven their ability to produce their own nanopore sequencer, Illumina could very well be yet another patent aggregator trying to neutralize the incoming threat to their business.

Even if the MinION does not contain Msp pores, Illumina could still utilize the doctrine of equivalents. This aspect of patent law claims that Oxford Nanopore Technologies could still be liable for patent infringement as long as the product in question performs the same function as the patented invention in the same way. Originally created to cover the difficulty in describing the invention exactly, the doctrine can now be used to back companies like Oxford Nanopore into a corner.

Depending on the outcome of this legal battle, the entire course of scientific progress can be altered. With such great scientific advancements at risk due to capitalistic greed, it’s time to take another look at our patent system to prevent other innovations from becoming similarly obstructed. Overhauling the patent system is essential to taking money and special interests out of scientific research and thereby crafting an atmosphere more conducive to intellectual cohabitation and progress.

According to phylogenomics researcher Joe Parker, nanopore sequencing can bring about a second age of genomics. If that future can never come to fruition, then the same bleak stasis will certainly sabotage other shining opportunities for society as well.

Originally published on May 4, 2016, in The Miscellany NewsNanopore sequencing research should be encouraged