Wednesday, May 4, 2011

My Final Post and Evaluation

So this will be it for the blog, my science communication class has concluded, and I will be graduating in 9 days!  It has been really fun managing this blog for the last 4 months, and it has opened me up to a whole world of blogging that I really didn't know about.  I also learned a lot about genetics and all the ethical issues surrounding the field.  Maybe someday you will see a GM label on your corn, or see a home genetics test in your cabinet, and be reminded of this blog.

I think I found my engaging voice pretty early on in the blogging experience, and tried to carry it through most of my posts.  I ended up with a total of 22 not counting this one, and this last blogging period I was about 4 posts short of the two a week mark.  I started running out of ideas and enthusiasm for findings new things to write about, as I beat GM foods into the ground pretty good.  I was pretty consistent commenting on others blogs, probably hitting 3 or 4 posts a week with a comment. 

Anyways a special thanks to Jen, my professor, good luck with the class next year!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Labeling of GM Foods

Recently a bill in the Connecticut state congress was proposed requiring Connecticut consumer be made aware of GM foods they are purchasing by placing labels on these items.  The bill was killed though by a lower level General Law Committee before it could be voted on.  This is currently a large portion of the GM food debate, labeling.  Some feel these foods should be labeled so people know what they are eating, while others feel that GM foods have been proven safe enough to the point where labeling is not necessary.

Through my research this semester, I have found nothing that suggests GM foods can harm humans, and there is not a single instance where GM foods were tied to any health problems.  The truth is, it is nearly impossible to tell if a GM food has affected an adult.  Considering the rest of their diet and general lifestyle, there are too many factors to test its direct effect.

I don't see labeling of these  foods happening in the near future for two reasons.  First, several items in the produce section would require labeling, but I would bet that most of packaged foods would require GM labels.  Corn which yields corn syrup, sugar beets which make up a large percent of our sugar, and soy are all GM foods, and these items are commonly found in the ingredient lists on nutritional facts.  Grocery stores would be covered in GM labels, so it honestly makes more sense to label those things that are organic, which is already done.  The consumer should assume they are eating GM food if it isn't organic.

Second, large corporations won't let labeling happen. Monsanto, for example, produces most of the GM seeds used in America, and also produces the herbicide that may be used with them.  They do not want to see labels on GM foods, as it could hurt their profits. Unfortunately, corporate lobbyists are the most powerful people in Washington, so I doubt federal legislation will come through anytime soon concerning the labeling of GM foods.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Intellectual Property of Genes

The field of genetics is relatively a new one within the science world.  As within every industry, the discovery of new things and new processes leads to legal issues, including intellectual property rights and patents.  The field of genetics has been no different.

As genes, specific sequences of DNA, began to be discovered, scientists started requesting patents on "their" genes. Previous to 2001, some of these discoveries (identification of a gene's sequence alone) were granted patents.  In 2001 though, questions were raised about patents of genes and some demanded that the bar be raised for patents.  Their argument was that these patents will limit the use of basic genetic information, and may inhibit or slow biomedical research.  They had a solid argument in my opinion.

The concern was well received, and the grounds for a patent were modified.  The current guidelines state that "identification of a gene's sequence alone is not patentable, but that a gene isolated from its natural state may be patentable if the applicants can demonstrate 'specific, substantial and credible utility' for the discovery" (from  These guidelines have allowed for the worldwide sharing of human genomes, in order to increase the data available and allow the field to advance further. 

Still, if your genome is tested, do you want it available to just anyone? Or is that information your own property?  Currently it is available to anyone, although names are not attached to genomes.  I don't honestly see an issue with it, but someday if we are using our genomes to allow pharmacy to give us 'taylor-made' drugs, I could see an issue with a database of genomes being available online.  People may take advantage of it to illegally obtain drugs they otherwise could not obtain.  Ultimately, the industry is still just taking its first baby steps in my opinion, so time will tell how these issues are resolved.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Genetic Testing on Unborn Fetuses

I've talked about the ethics of genetic testing on humans, as well as the ethics of GM crops and livestock.  Now I'd like to have some discussion on the unborn.  Genetic testing on fetuses is routinely offered by doctors and is legal at this point in time.  We have discussed the ability of a genetic test to show susceptibility to diseases, and it can also show potential birth defects.  Genetic testing on a fetus requires an invasive test, which means a sample of the placenta or amniotic fluid is needed.  Invasive tests themselves carry some  risk as there is a small chance that they could induce a miscarriage.  There are other "prenatal" tests that measure protein levels in the mother's blood to determine risk for Down Syndrome, among other defects, but these screenings are not as accurate as a genetics test.  

Genetic testing on the fetuses may help a doctor in providing the best care and management of the patients pregnancy, and help a couple to prepare for a baby with birth defects.  Though, it is important for doctors to explain that some of these tests only show a higher risk for a disease/defect, and do no necessarily mean that the baby will be affected.  The testing also raises ethical questions, because certain parents may opt for abortion if they find their baby will have birth defects or down syndrome.  For this reason, some believe genetic testing on fetuses should not be allowed. 

Unfortunately, this issue really is a larger one in disguise (the legality of abortion), so it is difficult to pin down.  In my opinion, there is nothing ethically wrong with genetically testing a fetus.  If the parents wish to know if their baby is healthy, then they should know.  What the parents do with the information is also their business.  It is critical to be able to distinguish between the two separate issues.  Let those who are against abortion not use genetic testing as the scapegoat.  I say this, because I would speculate that those against genetic testing of fetuses are also against the legality of abortion.  Genetic testing on fetuses should continue to be offered to parents who desire information about the health of their baby.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Ethics of Bio-Engineering

During this semester of blogging, I have learned that bio/genetic engineering and ethics have become inseparable.  You cannot talk about the engineering without addressing the ethics.  The video from below shows many examples of bioengineering and asks questions about the ethics involved.  I'll summarize the video below, but if this is something that interests you, I recommend viewing it.

Mainly what I take from this video is that the line between what is ethical and unethical is very unclear in bioengineering.  In fact, it is so hazy that I cannot even speculate on a place to actually draw the line.  Some will say it should have been drawn years ago when we created "roundup ready" corn.  Others will say that we should use this technology to the fullest in order to help our society, despite any ethical questions that may be raised.

Regardless of your opinion, humans are now able to design the evolution of plants, animals, and possibly humans someday.  Darwinian evolution is really out the window in any place where the human hand is present.  It started 10,000 years ago when we began to control our environments, create irrigation systems, and decide how much of which crops would be grown and which animals would be bred.  Now, we can control evolution in the laboratory, which opens up a infinite amount of possibilities.

One of the issues the video brings up is the design of animals as living "factories" to produce medicines we require.  For example, a goat has been genetically modified to produce antithrombin in its milk.  As helpful as it could be, this is the type of industry where large factories could house thousands of animals in terrible living conditions, keeping the animals barely alive, so they can produce a product.  We have seen how some ranches and slaughter houses treat their cows and chickens, and this potential situation could yield similar results.

Everyone will see it differently, but I feel the line will need to be drawn somewhere.  The problem with drawing it is that bioengineering covers so many fields.  There's genetically modified crops and animals for food consumption, engineered animals for pets, engineered bugs that could be used as spying devices, and someday humans could also be genetically modified.  The possibilities are limitless and frightening.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Another Genetic Link to Alzheimer's

Up to 79% of a person's susceptibility to Alzheimer's is determined by a person's genes.  Several genetic links have already been traced to Alzheimer's disease.  Most notably, the gene APOE was discovered  in 1995 and greatly increases a person's risk for the disease.  Inheritance of the APOE gene from one parent increases Alzheimer risk by 400%, and from both parents increased risk by 1000%.  Today, the APOE gene is the main indicator of Alzheimer's risk when examining a human's genome. 

The evidence for the newly discovered genes is substantial, but it is believed these genes only raise risk 10-15%, so they will not be used to decide a person's risk for Alzheimer's.  The new genes do present further evidence for the correlation between cholesterol and Alzheimer's disease, as they are involved in cholesterol production in the human body.  Doctors and scientists are hopeful that more discoveries like this will help future treatment for the disease, as people susceptible could be treated beforehand to prevent Alzheimer's.

 Dr. Schellenberg, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, led the effort to discover four of the five new genes related to Alzheimer's.  Schellenberg believed many genetic studies were being conducted within small, isolated groups.  He also believes scientists have been hesitant to share their data and findings with others, and says that this must stop if advances are to be made in the field.  For his recent discovery of the new genes, Schellenberg compiled patient data from nearly every Alzheimer's research group in the country.  This large sample made the discovery of the genes possible.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

2nd Evaluation

Personal blog posts: 15
  • Time spent on my posts: 1-2 hrs each
I'm active in the blogging community that is our classroom by commenting on others blogs.  There's a few blogs I follow closely and try to comment on most every post (Nuclear Option).  I've also responded to every comment on any of my blogs, interacting with classmates comments.  Also, when someone comments on one of mine, I try to return the favor on their blog.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Nanopore Sequencing

It has been said that the goal in the genetic sequencing industry is to develop a sequencing method within the next five years that will bring the cost of a human genome to $1000.  Crazy cheap considering it was 10 million dollars five years ago.  Many believe the technology that will get us there is nanopore sequencing.

With this method of sequencing, single strands of DNA will be forced through a membrane with extremely tiny holes in it, or nanopores.  These would be a width small enough to only let one strand of DNA through at a time, about one billionth of a meter!

In the image, the yellow zipper looking object is a DNA strand.  It is forced through the membrane due to an electric force.  This force is obtained by a positive and negative ionic solution on either side of the membrane.  Also, there is a voltage difference across the small pore in the membrane, so electrons will pass from one side of the pore to the other.

To reiterate an earlier post, DNA consists of four nucleotide bases, represented by the letters A, C, G, and T.  These four bases are the building blocks of life, or the blueprint if you will.  As the DNA strand moves through the membrane, electrons will experience a current change based on the nucleotide base that is passing through, either A, C, G, or T.  A device measuring current will allow a computer to determine the exact sequence of bases as they pass through the membrane, and once all of the DNA has passed through, a whole genome will be obtained.

It is anticipated that this technology is likely to succeed and bring the cost of sequencing down significantly.  It's really only a matter of time! Check out this link for a 3 minute video explaining nanopore sequencing technology in a slightly more in depth manner.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Cost of Genome Sequencing Dropping like a Rock

Check out this graph from

Note the logarithmic scale on the vertical axis!  Something else you may not recognize is Moore's Law, which is a long-term trend in the computer hardware industry that involves the doubling of computing power, a decent comparison to show the great progress of sequencing technology.  Five years ago it cost over $10 million, but today it costs only $20,000 to sequence an entire human genome.

In the sequencing technology industry, the big goal is to develop a $1000 genome sequence in the next 5 years.  If (more like when) this happens,  I believe many things will change in medicine, and I bet many of you reading this may get your DNA sequenced by such a machine within the next decade.

For my next post I'll talk about nanopore sequencing, a cool technology that may get us to this 1000 dollar mark!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Human DNA similarities to chimps and bananas, what does it mean?

When I was a child I remember hearing humans came from monkeys.  I asked myself, "Then why are monkeys still around?" A valid question.  The problem with the initial statement though is that we did not come from monkeys, but rather we share a common ancestor.  When it comes to common ancestors and evolution, genetic sequencing has provided a great understanding.

I'm sure you've heard it before; humans and chimpanzees are about 98.8% similar.  What does that really mean though? This number refers to comparing single nucleotide changes in the DNA, or changes in the sequence of the A,C,G,T code.

Comparing genetic duplications in genes, the number lowers to 96%.  What's a duplication? As Even Eichler of University of Washington says, if we consider the genetic code as a book, entire pages will be repeated in one species but not the other.  So conservatively, we are 96% alike with out closest cousin.  Here's some other common animals and our genetic similarites (these numbers are consistent across all reliable sources):

Cat: 90%
Cow: 80%
Mouse: 75%
Fruit Fly: 60%
Banana: 50%

 Interesting to look at.  What I find most fascinating is the 50% match to bananas! Animal and plant life share so much ancient DNA coding from way back when plant and animal life diverged approximately 1.5 billion years ago.

The sequencing technology allowing for genetic comparison has been huge for anthropologists and evolutionary biologists.  Anthropologists have used comparisons of genes between humans and our closest cousins to better understand when and how genetic variations occurred.  Evolution was already well established before this technology existed with fossil records, embryology, comparisons of skeletal systems, study of vestigal appendages, and finally the understanding of the driver of evolution: natural selection.  Genetic sequencing confirmed our understanding of species divergence and evolution, and also allowed scientists to better understand and build the the fascinating "tree of life."

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Hot off the Press: Genetics in the News

 Some recent genetics news:

  • Genetically modified crop growing increased by 10% worldwide in area last year, up to 148 million hectares.  This is equivalent to about 10% of the world's total cropland area.  The article, found here, also states several new GM crops will be approved for commercialization by 2015.  These include potatoes resistant to the disease causing the Irish famine in 1845, disease-resistant bananas, and insect resistant tomatoes, broccoli, and cabbage.

  • This article raises ethical questions about genetic predictors of disease and introduces a survivor of breast cancer.  About 10 years ago a genetic test had revealed her mother carried a mutation signaling a heightened risk for the disease.  Since learning of her high risk, she decided to be vigilant and opted for frequent mammograms.  Eventually she did develop breast cancer, but due to the frequent mammograms, it was diagnosed very early and was treatable.  Knowing in advance helped this patient, but some patients don't want to know about their susceptibility to diseases, as they feel it is "future-robbing" news.

  • Genetically modified fungus could be used to combat malaria carried by mosquitoes.  Instead of genetically modifying a new breed of mosquitoes, researchers at the University of Maryland have modified a fungus that usually attacks the mosquitoes.  Now, the fungus only delivers compounds that target the malaria parasite.  They believe that malaria transmission to humans could be reduced five-fold.  This is significant, as malaria deaths each year are estimated to be about 780,000 in the world.  The article may be found here.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

DNA Sequencing!

I'd like to apologize in advance for this long-winded post, but I thought a breakdown of genetic sequencing was necessary before I begin to talk about the more interesting stories and aspects of genome sequencing.

The human genome has about 3 billion base pairs, making up around 20000 genes, which then make op our 24 chromosomes.  The base pairs are made up of four nucleotides, represented by the letters A, C, G,  & T.  So how do we accurately obtain the sequence of 3 billion of these letters? The method used today is called the termination method, and will be explained below.

First, chromosomes are cut into lengths around 150000 base pairs long, using a restriction enzyme.  These enzymes cut the DNA whenever they encounter a specific sequence of letters.  Next, the DNA fragments are separated from each other and are introduced to DNA vectors, in order to make clones.  DNA vectors are DNA strand of known sequence, which form into a circle.  The circles are split open chemically, and allow the human DNA fragment to insert, see illustration.  To clone these vectors, bacteria are introduced.  When the bacteria takes a vector into its cell, the vector will be duplicated when the bacteria duplicates.  These bacteria are then cultured until millions of copies of one DNA fragment are obtained!

Now the sequencing process can begin.  Heat is added to separate the double strand DNA into single strand.  Then, three materials are added to the copies of the DNA fragment & vector.  First, a primer is added, which has a sequence matching the end of the vector strand, so the beginning of the human DNA can be found.  A mixture of regular nucleotides, A, C, T & G is added, and new double strands begin to form onto the separated single strands.  This process would go on until the whole human DNA fragment is duplicated, but special terminator nucleotides are added to the mixture to stop the process at random points.

Since the ratio of regular to terminator nucleotides is very high, duplicated strands will be anywhere from 2 base pairs long to hundreds of base pairs long before a terminator happens to stop the process.

Now we have millions of DNA strands of varying length, with special terminator nucleotides on the end of each one.  These terminators are extra special because each one of the four has the ability to reflect light when a laser is shown on it! The colors reflected can be seen in the illustration just above.

Illustrations courtesy of NOVA online
The final process in sequencing is involves separating the new strands based on length, and reading the terminator nucleotide reflection of each length.  But how can these be separated by length, when the a base pair is only the size of a molecule?  The batch of DNA is placed at the end of a capillary tube with a gel inside.  The gel allows shorter lengths to travel faster than longer ones, which puts them in order by length!  Finally the laser is projected onto the other end of the capillary, and reads the terminator nucleotide of each length of DNA.  A DNA sequence can finally be put together! To the laser detector, the sequence show in the illustration to the right will read green, blue, green, green, yellow, red, which translates to ACAAGT.

This process of sequencing is repeated for all of the cut chromosome fragments and different vectors until the entire sequence is obtained!

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Future of Genomics and You

From Nature Feb. 2011
Someday in the future, it may be standard procedure for a human's genome to be mapped right after birth.  Each person may be provided with a genetic information card (like a credit card).  This can act as a method of identification and could potentially revolutionize pharmaceuticals.  Provided with your genome, a pharmacy may be able to alter a drug so it is taylor-made for you.  This could eliminate side effects and increase effectiveness of medicine.

The scenario presented above is just a snap-shot of where some scientists believe genomics will take us in the future, although we may never see this in our lifetimes.  A recent article in the journal Nature entitled "Charting a course for genomic medicine from base pairs to bedside" by Green & Guyer outlined their take on the future of and associated challenges that genomics will face.

The field of genomics has been one of the fastest growing in science in the last few decades.  Many species' genomes have been mapped, and links have been found between many diseases and genetic coding.  The current technology is improving, but costs too much and can take too much time to catalog a given specimen's genome. 

The article states the focus of genomics is to understand human biology and the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of human disease (genomics in agriculture are outside the scope of their work).  A great opportunity that arises is the ability to treat a disease without a thorough understanding of it.  For example, different cancer therapies may be selected based on the genomic profile of the tumor in question, without a full understand of how the tumor works.  To gain the full benefits that genomics will someday provide, Green & Guyer believe the next step must be the genome cataloging of tens (even hundreds) of thousands of different people.  With this, diseases may be correlated to genetic variations in humans that either create the disease or make the human more susceptible to the disease.

The largest step in creating this huge database of human genomes is the development of cheaper and faster equipment.  Once a genome can be analyzed quickly and economically, the amount of genetic information available will skyrocket.  Legal issues will be associated with the availability of this personal information, but they probably will be handled in a similar fashion as medical records are handled today.

In sum, a community effort is needed to make technology better and to create a large database of genetic information.  Once available, individual scientists will be able to take this information and pursue hypothesis-driven research to advance the field of medicine and better the health of millions.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dr. Oz's take on GMO = terrible science communication

Browsing other blogs, I found one called Tomorrow's Table by Dr. Pamela Ronald, a respected plant pathologist.  In December 2010, she appeared on a panel of experts to discuss GMO food safety on the Dr. Oz show.  I'll give a summary, but the segment can be found here

First, I just want to say how frustrating it was watching this.  Frustrating not for the fact that I'm pro GMO food (I'm not necessarily), but rather because the science was presented so poorly by Oz and his producers.  Dr. Ronald was also frustrated, if you check out her blog.  The show starts out with a video overview of GMOs.  The background music is dramatic and fearful, and he uses words like "franken foods."  This is followed by Oz questioning the three experts about GMOs, and the general conclusion (among Oz and two of them) is that they are unsafe.  The whole segment they team up on Dr. Ronald, and it seems the only reason she is there is so they can claim they represented both sides.  The segment is framed very well for someone trying to scare viewers of GMOs, focusing on human health and children's health.  Both sides were not represented properly, and Oz's communication used the deficit model.

Through the last few weeks I've research these crops, and human health is the least of our worries for the current GM crops out there.  They've been in the food supply about 15 years with no health concerns to show for it.  The companies engineering these plants check that the new protein is safe, and they check if the new crop is otherwise identical to the original.  Then, the plant still has to meet FDA standards for a normal crop, there are not yet special guidelines for GM crops.  There are other risks, if you view my earlier posts.

Oz also tries to make the argument that 6 European countries have banned GMOs, therefore they should be considered unsafe.  Ronald counters that the scientific community in Europe is generally in favor of GMOs, but the reason they are banned is a political and social one.  Based on how politics work, I'm going to have to side with Dr. Ronald on that one.  Media, religious, and political leaders can get people to believe anything.  For example, a NPR report recently showed that over half of Republican primary voters still believe Obama was not born in the United States.  One that I find particularly offensive as a geologist is that many still think the Earth is 6000 years old, despite the overwhelming amount of scientific knowledge that shows it is over 4 billion years old. 

I'd like to conclude by saying that it is unfortunate that someone with a TV show can potentially influence millions in a 15 minute segment through misleading and improper science communication.  The truth is though, most people receive all of their knowledge about current issues through television media (often times very biased).  Dr. Ronald pressed the audience to visit specific science websites that would show peer-reviewed work supporting that GM crops are not harmful to human health.  But c'mon, you know 99% of the viewing audience would never do that.  Why did Oz and his producers present GM crops this way? Because they wanted the shock effect and wanted the fantastic and frightful news that would boost their ratings.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Banana Vaccine

There is some research and experimentation into genetically engineering vaccines within plants, like bananas and tomatoes.  Vaccines today are very expensive to produce and sometimes have poor shelf lives, but by putting vaccines in foods those problems may be fixed.  

Most likely these vaccines would be "grown" in a controlled environment where cross-pollination and adverse effects on other species would not be possible.  But, considering what would be the widespread use and disposal of these foods, there is potential that the gene could enter the domestic food supply.  Ingestion in large quantities and ingestion by certain people with health conditions may be very harmful.  There also is the primary issue of the effectiveness of the modified foods as a vaccine.

It seems unlikely (and unsafe) at this point, but someday instead of a painful shot we may be immunized by a tasty banana.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Controversy: The Pros and Cons of Genetically Modified Crops

Genetically modified (GM) crops are a hot topic right now amongst farmers and environmentalists.  Here are some Pros and Cons, adopted from this PBS report.   After reading these I'd love to hear your opinions.  Do you think they are safe to humans? Even if they are safe, are they necessary considering environment risk? Also would like to hear any additional benefits or risks you may think of.  

  • GM crops may provide more nutrients, vitamins, and reduced saturated fats than traditional varieties.  
  • Crops can be resistant to disease and insects, potentially cutting farming costs on insect/herbicides.
  • Crops can be engineered to have a longer shelf life.
  • Some believe GM crops may help fight world hunger.
  • GM crops are already ingested in high quantities in the U.S. with no health concerns to show for it, and testing of new GM crops is very thorough (based on many sources I've seen).

  • Some studies show crop yields are not increased.
  • There is the potential of "super weeds" and "super insect" evolution.
  • Not all the effects may be possibly known, and the corporations pushing GM crops are profit-driven, leading some to believe they are overstated benefits and overlooking risks.
  • Further travel down the road of monoculture.  Currently 15 species of crops account for 90% of world energy consumption (  A diversity of crops may be considered natural and provides insurance against drought and disease.
  • These crops may hurt small farmers, as they will become reliant on seeds from corporations producing GM crop.  They may also hurt foreign farming if modification allows more tropical crops to be grown in more temperate climates.
  • The EU and some other nations will not consume GM crops exported by other nations, so adopting them domestically could hurt U.S. export numbers.

Regulations on Sugar Beets

Sugar beets account for about 50% of sugar production in the U.S, and genetically modified sugar beets made up 95% of the total sugar beet crop in 2010.  From NPR,  The modified beets are "Roundup Ready", so the herbicide Roundup can be sprayed onto the beet fields, killing all weeds, but leaving the beets unharmed.

On Feb. 4th the USDA lifted a temporary ban on the planting of genetically modified sugar beets.  In late 2010 a Federal judge ruled that the beets cannot be planted until a full environment impact study is completed. The USDA lifted the ban due to the upcoming planting season, and due to their fear that U.S. sugar beet yields would severely drop if GM sugar beets are not planted.

Opponents feel the USDA broke the law, as they disputed a federal court ruling.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Self Interview and 1st Evaluation

What is the purpose of this blog?
 - The purpose of this blog is to inform people about genetics and new advances in the field.  It also focuses on presented the information in an understanding and entertaining way.

Who is the imagined audience(s) of this blog?
- My classmates and also the general public.

Better science communication, throw a party!

A reading for my class from Investigating Science Communication showed that many times, even when dialogue is attempted, scientists feed their knowledge/research to people and questions are encouraged afterward.  This can be very similar to the feared deficit approach.  

In the reading, Davies proposed that scientific dialogue should aim to have an impact on individuals; large scale impacts on science and policy are not always necessary.  To do this, I thought, a more social event should take place.  Scientists may come, give a very brief talk about their work, then they should mingle with the invited and interested public.

There is no need for a stage and auditorium seating; tables, chairs, and a comfortable atmosphere is the proper setting to encourage conversation.  Drinks and appetizers should be available (I recommend a cash bar, as an open bar may get out of hand).  This way people will be able to jump from scientist to scientist, express their views and ask questions, and enjoy their martinis.  When science is communicated in a more personal and conversational way, as Alan Alda related in the video we watched, it is better received and understood.  I think better understanding between scientists and the public may be achieved at an event like this compared to a talk and Q & A session.

Just a thought!

Friday, January 28, 2011

GM Foods: The Tomato Fish

In 1991, the company DNA Plant Technologies genetically engineered a tomato containing a gene from a fish, the arctic flounder. The goal was to create a tomato more resistant to frost and cold storage. Experiments revealed the new gene did not help the tomato, and it never made it to supermarkets. Although it was a failure, these "Tomato Fish" or "Fish Tomatoes" created something of a scare among activists and the public. How can a fish and a tomato be combined, and how can that be healthy/safe?  Some consumers may have had an image like this in their brains:

Fish tomatoes never happened, but many foods in the United States today are genetically modified (GM).  Bt corn, for example, is a large GM crop in the U.S.  A gene from a bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, was inserted in the laboratory 14 years ago to combat a corn eating worm.  The corn became very popular and now makes up approximately 63% of the U.S. corn crop produced.  All this from a NPR report.  Soybeans, alfalfa, and cotton are also large GM crops in the United States.

So, considering corn and soy are key ingredients in corn syrup and vegetable oil, you probably ingested some GM foods today!  These foods have been deemed safe to human health as well as the environment by the USDA.  In fact, just yesterday the USDA lifted all restrictions on the growing of a specific GM alfalfa plant, and more decisions will soon come down for sugar beets and corn.

Now, what is important to understand is this: Not all GM crops are created equal.  Different genetic modifications will yield different results when combining different species' genes, and public concerned is certainly warranted.  Just because these specific alfalfa and corn strains have been deemed safe, it does not mean that crossing a tomato and fish gene, for example, will be safe.  Each new breed of GM crop needs to be tested to the fullest extent.  This does not only include concern for human health, but also the health of any organisms that will naturally be in contact with the crop in the wild. 

My next post will be on the advantages and disadvantages of GM crops!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Pinot Noir or Franken Noir?

I thought I would open the blog with a entertaining and informative clip about the genome, DNA, and some ideas about where the field of genetics will be taking us.  I recommend the whole video, but it is 21 minutes long, so if your time is limited, skip to 13:30 to learn the reason for this post's title. 

I also enjoyed his comparison of the genome to the binary system starting around 04:30.  The building blocks of life can be boiled down to four chemicals, described by the letters A, T, G, & C.  Modern technology, using the binary system, only uses two numbers to describe its code!   4 > 2

The main thing I took from this video though was how scientists can modify the genome of organisms to yield a desired effect.  For example, modifications may allow a plant like pinot noir  to yield more crop, to have longer growing seasons, and to be resistant to disease.  Some fear exists of genetically modified crops, as people are afraid they could be harmful, but most crops we eat today are already modified by humans.  My next post on Gene Cuisine will be on genetically modified plants and the associated fear of these crops!

Go Packers


I am a student of engineering who has put this blog about genetics together for a communicating science class.  The proper communication of science is vital to our society, and I recommend viewing other students' blogs, which can be seen on CommForge.  I hope my future posts satisfy your appetite for information on the field of genetics! Bon Appetit!