March 6, 2017

QotD: Organic food “standards”

Filed under: Environment, Government, Health, Quotations, Science, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In December 1997 when USDA proposed standards for organic agricultural production, the original version was rejected by the organic enthusiasts, largely because it would have permitted the use of organisms modified with modern genetic engineering techniques (“GMOs”) – which would have been quite sensible in the view of the scientific community. In the end, modern genetic engineering, which employs highly precise and predictable techniques, was prohibited, while genetic modification with older, far less precise, less predictable and less effective techniques were waived through.

The resulting organic “standards,” which are based on a kind of “nature good, technology evil” ethic, arbitrarily define which pesticides are acceptable, but allow “deviations” if based on “need.” Synthetic chemical pesticides are generally prohibited, although there is a lengthy list of exceptions listed in the Organic Foods Production Act – while most “natural” ones are permitted. Thus, advocates of organic agriculture might be described as “pragmatic fanatics.” (Along those lines, the application as fertilizer of pathogen-laden animal manures, as compost, to the foods we eat is not only allowed, but in organic dogma, is virtually sacred.)

What, then, is the purpose of organic standards? “Let me be clear about one thing,” Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said when organic certification was being considered, “the organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.”

Organic standards are wholly arbitrary, owing more to the dogma of an atavistic religious cult than to science or common sense. And whatever their merit, as a December 2014 report in the Wall Street Journal described, the standards are not being enforced very effectively: An investigation by the newspaper of USDA inspection records since 2005 found that 38 of the 81 certifying agents – entities accredited by USDA to inspect and certify organic farms and suppliers — “failed on at least one occasion to uphold basic Agriculture Department standards.” More specifically, “40% of these 81 certifiers have been flagged by the USDA for conducting incomplete inspections; 16% of certifiers failed to cite organic farms’ potential use of banned pesticides and antibiotics; and 5% failed to prevent potential commingling of organic and nonorganic products.”


The bottom line is that buying “certified organic” products doesn’t guarantee that they will be free of genetically engineered ingredients. Even so, buying organic should please those consumers who think that paying a big premium for something means that it’s sure to be better. We hope that at least they get the benefit of the “placebo effect.”

Henry I. Miller and Drew L. Kershen, “Fanaticism, Pragmatism and Organic Agriculture”, Forbes, 2015-07-08.

November 26, 2016

The war on science

Filed under: Environment, Health, Politics, Science, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In City Journal, John Tierney explains why the most serious threats to science come not from the right’s creationist bitter clingers, but from the left’s highly selective “pro (some) science” activism:

I know that sounds strange to Democrats who decry Republican creationists and call themselves the “party of science.” But I’ve done my homework. I’ve read the Left’s indictments, including Chris Mooney’s bestseller, The Republican War on Science. I finished it with the same question about this war that I had at the outset: Where are the casualties?

Where are the scientists who lost their jobs or their funding? What vital research has been corrupted or suppressed? What scientific debate has been silenced? Yes, the book reveals that Republican creationists exist, but they don’t affect the biologists or anthropologists studying evolution. Yes, George W. Bush refused federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, but that hardly put a stop to it (and not much changed after Barack Obama reversed the policy). Mooney rails at scientists and politicians who oppose government policies favored by progressives like himself, but if you’re looking for serious damage to the enterprise of science, he offers only three examples.

All three are in his first chapter, during Mooney’s brief acknowledgment that leftists “here and there” have been guilty of “science abuse.” First, there’s the Left’s opposition to genetically modified foods, which stifled research into what could have been a second Green Revolution to feed Africa. Second, there’s the campaign by animal-rights activists against medical researchers, whose work has already been hampered and would be devastated if the activists succeeded in banning animal experimentation. Third, there’s the resistance in academia to studying the genetic underpinnings of human behavior, which has cut off many social scientists from the recent revolutions in genetics and neuroscience. Each of these abuses is far more significant than anything done by conservatives, and there are plenty of others. The only successful war on science is the one waged by the Left.

May 26, 2016

Eighty percent of Americans surveyed favour banning things they know nothing about

Filed under: Health, Media, Science, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Don’t get too smug, fellow Canuckistanis, as I suspect the numbers might be just as bad if Canadians were surveyed in this way:

You might have heard that Americans overwhelmingly favor mandatory labeling for foods containing genetically modified ingredients. That’s true, according to a new study: 84 percent of respondents said they support the labels.

Survey of GMO labelling fans

But a nearly identical percentage — 80 percent—in the same survey said they’d also like to see labels on food containing DNA.

Survey of DNA labelling fans

The study, published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal last week, also found that 33 percent of respondents thought that non-GM tomatoes “did not contain genes” and 32 percent thought that “vegetables did not have DNA.” So there’s that.

University of Florida food economist Brandon R. McFadden and his co-author Jayson L. Lusk surveyed 1,000 American consumers and discovered [PDF] that “consumers think they know more than they actually do about GM food.” In fact, the authors say, “the findings question the usefulness of results from opinion polls as motivation for public policy surrounding GM food.”

My summary for laymen: When it comes to genetically modified food, people don’t know much, they don’t know what they don’t know, and they sure as heck aren’t letting that stop them from having strong opinions.

December 16, 2015

Chipotle gains “green cred PR opportunities” and worse health outcomes for customers

Filed under: Business, Health, Science, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Henry Miller on the Faustian bargain Chipotle willingly made and is now paying for:

Chipotle, the once-popular Mexican restaurant chain, is experiencing a well-deserved downward spiral.

The company found it could pass off a fast-food menu stacked with high-calorie, sodium-rich options as higher quality and more nutritious because the meals were made with locally grown, genetic engineering-free ingredients. And to set the tone for the kind of New Age-y image the company wanted, Chipotle adopted slogans like, “We source from farms rather than factories” and, “With every burrito we roll or bowl we fill, we’re working to cultivate a better world.”

The rest of the company wasn’t as swift as the marketing department, however. Last week, about 140 people, all but a handful Boston College students, were recovering from a nasty bout of norovirus-caused gastroenteritis, a foodborne illness apparently contracted while eating Chipotle’s “responsibly raised” meats and largely organic produce.

And they’re not alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been tracking another, unrelated Chipotle food poisoning outbreak in California, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington, in which victims have been as young as one year and as old as 94. Using whole genome sequencing, CDC investigators identified the DNA fingerprint of the bacterial culprit in that outbreak as E. coli strain STEC O26, which was found in all of the sickened customers tested.

Outbreaks of food poisoning have become something of a Chipotle trademark; the recent ones are the fourth and fifth this year, one of which was not disclosed to the public. A particularly worrisome aspect of the company’s serial deficiencies is that there have been at least three unrelated pathogens in the outbreaks – Salmonella and E. coli bacteria and norovirus. In other words, there has been more than a single glitch; suppliers and employees have found a variety of ways to contaminate what Chipotle cavalierly sells (at premium prices) to its customers.

November 19, 2015

Is a possible cure for old age now in sight?

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Matt Ridley on recent developments in the search for ways to ameliorate the effects of aging:

Squeezed between falling birth rates and better healthcare, the world population is getting rapidly older. Learning how to deal with that is one of the great challenges of this century. The World Health Organisation has just produced a report on the implications of an ageing population, which — inadvertently — reveals a dismal fatalism we share about the illnesses of old age: that they will always be inevitable.

This could soon be wrong. A new book, The Telomerase Revolution, published in America this week by the doctor and medical researcher Michael Fossel, argues that we now understand enough about the fundamental cause of ageing to be confident that we will eventually be able to reverse it. This would mean curing diseases such as Alzheimer’s, heart disease and osteoporosis, rather than coping with them or treating their symptoms.

Let me show you what I mean about fatalism. The WHO report on ageing and health, for all its talk of the need for “profound changes” to health care for the elderly, actually urges us to stop trying to cure the afflictions of old age and learn to live with them: “The societal response to population ageing will require a transformation of health systems that moves away from disease-based curative models and towards the provision of older-person-centred and integrated care.”

Yet it also subscribes to the somewhat magical hope that illnesses of old age can be “prevented or delayed by engaging in healthy behaviours” and that “physical activity and good nutrition can have powerful benefits for health and wellbeing.” This is largely wishful thinking. There is no evidence that, say, Alzheimer’s can be prevented by a certain diet or activity. A lack of activity and poor nutrition can worsen health at any age, but the underlying chronic diseases of old age are caused by age itself.

When I asked Dr Fossel what he thought of the WHO report, he replied: “In 1950 we could have talked (and did) about ‘active polio’ in the sense of keeping polio victims active rather than giving up, but the very phrase itself implies that one has already given up. I would prefer that we cure the fundamental problem. Why talk about ‘active ageing’, ‘successful ageing’, and ‘healthy ageing’ when we could talk about not ageing?”

August 20, 2015

One of the slickest marketing campaigns of our time

Filed under: Environment, Europe, Health, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In Forbes, Henry I. Miller and Drew L. Kershen explain why they think organic farming is, as they term it, a “colossal hoax” that promises far more than it can possibly deliver:

Consumers of organic foods are getting both more and less than they bargained for. On both counts, it’s not good.

Many people who pay the huge premium — often more than 100% — for organic foods do so because they’re afraid of pesticides. If that’s their rationale, they misunderstand the nuances of organic agriculture. Although it’s true that synthetic chemical pesticides are generally prohibited, there is a lengthy list of exceptions listed in the Organic Foods Production Act, while most “natural” ones are permitted. However, “organic” pesticides can be toxic. As evolutionary biologist Christie Wilcox explained in a 2012 Scientific American article (“Are lower pesticide residues a good reason to buy organic? Probably not.”): “Organic pesticides pose the same health risks as non-organic ones.”

Another poorly recognized aspect of this issue is that the vast majority of pesticidal substances that we consume are in our diets “naturally” and are present in organic foods as well as non-organic ones. In a classic study, UC Berkeley biochemist Bruce Ames and his colleagues found that “99.99 percent (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves.” Moreover, “natural and synthetic chemicals are equally likely to be positive in animal cancer tests.” Thus, consumers who buy organic to avoid pesticide exposure are focusing their attention on just one-hundredth of 1% of the pesticides they consume.

Some consumers think that the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) requires certified organic products to be free of ingredients from “GMOs,” organisms crafted with molecular techniques of genetic engineering. Wrong again. USDA does not require organic products to be GMO-free. (In any case, the methods used to create so-called GMOs are an extension, or refinement, of older techniques for genetic modification that have been used for a century or more.)

August 17, 2015

Food fears and GMOs

Filed under: Environment, Health, Media, Politics, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Henry I. Miller and Drew L. Kershen on the widespread FUD still being pushed in much of the mainstream media about genetically modified organisms in the food supply:

New York Times nutrition and health columnist Jane Brody recently penned a generally good piece about genetic engineering, “Fears, Not Facts, Support GMO-Free Food.” She recapitulated the overwhelming evidence for the importance and safety of products from GMOs, or “genetically modified organisms” (which for the sake of accuracy, we prefer to call organisms modified with molecular genetic engineering techniques, or GE). Their uses encompass food, animal feed, drugs, vaccines and animals. Sales of drugs made with genetic engineering techniques are in the scores of billions of dollars annually, and ingredients from genetically engineered crop plants are found in 70-80 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves.

Brody’s article had two errors, however. The first was this statement, in a correction that was appended (probably by the editors) after the article was published:

    The article also referred imprecisely to regulation of GMOs by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. While the organizations regulate food from genetically engineered crops to ensure they are safe to eat, the program is voluntary. It is not the case that every GMO must be tested before it can be marketed.

In fact, every so-called GMO used for food, fiber or ornamental use is subject to compulsory case-by-case regulation by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of USDA and many are also regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during extensive field testing. When these organisms — plants, animals or microorganisms — become food, they are then overseen by the FDA, which has strict rules about misbranding (inaccurate or misleading labeling) and adulteration (the presence of harmful substances). Foods from “new plant varieties” made with any technique are subject to case-by-case premarket FDA review if they possess certain characteristics that pose questions of safety. In addition, food from genetically engineered organisms can undergo a voluntary FDA review. (Every GE food to this point has undergone the voluntary FDA review, so FDA has evaluated every GE food on the market).

The second error by Brody occurred in the very last words of the piece, “the best way for concerned consumers to avoid G.M.O. products is to choose those certified as organic, which the U.S.D.A. requires to be G.M.O.-free.” Brody has fallen victim to a common misconception; in fact, the USDA does not require organic products to be GMO-free.

August 12, 2015

Better hops through science

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At Wired, Katie M. Palmer discusses an interesting (if only to brewers and beer fans) development in the quest for better beer:

For craft breweries, originality is everything. Your favorite microbrew prides itself on the particular combination of grains, yeast, and hops that go into its fermented nectar. Regardless of the magic that goes into the recipe, though, a lot of those ingredients come from the same big suppliers — bulk barley, high-yield yeast. So when agricultural geneticist Sean Myles was visiting his brewing buddies over at Tatamagouche Brewing Company in Nova Scotia, the conversation turned quickly to the one place where microbreweries can really distinguish themselves: hop varieties.

“I’m a craft beer fanatic…a little bit,” says Myles, who researches at Dalhousie University. “I ended up hanging around the hop yard, and we were taking a look at the vines.” In Nova Scotia, brewers grow the same varieties of hops you’d see elsewhere — Cascade, Willamette, Fuggle — which add aroma, flavor, and bitterness to a beer while helping to preserve it. But the vines don’t thrive like they do on the dryer, warmer west coast. The region’s high humidity makes the plants vulnerable to mildew. Myles looked at the hops growing in the brewers’ backyard, stunted and suffering from fungus, and had an idea: “I said, well, let’s go get some pollen.”

So Myles and Hans Christian Jost from Tatamagouche traveled from Nova Scotia to Corvallis, Oregon, where the USDA has one of the biggest hop collections in the world. “In order to get new varieties you need to let these plants have sex and generate some offspring,” says Myles. The National Clonal Germplasm Repository — which includes a gene bank in addition to physical collections of berries, mint, and nuts — is one of the only places where hopheads have access to pollen from male plants. (The pine cone-shaped hops that go into your beer are the flower of female plants, so most growers don’t bother keeping any males around.)

At the USDA hop library, which has dozens of varieties bred for different taste profiles, disease resistance, and viability in different climates, Myles worked with hop expert John Henning to find four different male mildew-resistant hops. But he couldn’t take the plant material across the border to Canada — so he stuck baggies over the top of the plants, collected their pollen, and brought it back to sprinkle on top of the female flowers grown by the brewery.

That’s the beginning of what will be a multiple-year process of growing, seed collection, and growing again to select the most mildew-resistant plants that still keep their floral hop character. When the brewers are done, they’ll have a unique variety of hops that they can call their own — and hopefully grow more of, thanks to its improved mildew protection.

July 28, 2015

Viking genes

Filed under: Europe, History, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In Nautilis, Adam Piore talks about the project to thoroughly map Icelanders’ DNA:

In the ninth century there was a Norwegian Viking named Kveldulf, so big and strong that no man could defeat him. He sailed the seas in a long-ship and raided and plundered towns and homesteads of distant lands for many years. He settled down to farm, a very wealthy man.

Kveldulf had two sons who grew up to become mighty warriors. One joined the service of King Harald Tangle Hair. But in time the King grew fearful of the son’s growing power and had him murdered. Kveldulf vowed revenge. With his surviving son and allies, Kveldulf caught up with the killers, and wielding a double-bladed ax, slew 50 men. He sent the paltriest survivors back to the king to recount his deed and fled toward the newly settled realm of Iceland. Kveldulf died on the journey. But his remaining son Skallagrim landed on Iceland’s west coast, prospered, and had children.

Skallagrim’s children had children. Those children had children. And the blood and genes of Kveldulf the Viking and Skallagrim his son were passed down the ages. Then, in 1949, in the capital of Reykjavik, a descendent named Kari Stefansson was born.

Like Kveldulf, Stefansson would grow to be a giant, 6’5”, with piercing eyes and a beard. As a young man, he set out for the distant lands of the universities of Chicago and Harvard in search of intellectual bounty. But at the dawn of modern genetics in the 1990s, Stefansson, a neurologist, was lured back to his homeland by an unlikely enticement — the very genes that he and his 300,000-plus countrymen had inherited from Kveldulf and the tiny band of settlers who gave birth to Iceland.

Stefansson had a bold vision. He would create a library of DNA from every single living descendent of his nation’s early inhabitants. This library, coupled with Iceland’s rich trove of genealogical data and meticulous medical records, would constitute an unparalleled resource that could reveal the causes — and point to cures — for human diseases.

In 1996, Stefansson founded a company called Decode, and thrust his tiny island nation into the center of the burgeoning field of gene hunting. “Our genetic heritage is a natural resource,” Stefansson declared after returning to Iceland. “Like fish and hot pools.”

July 27, 2015

GMO food is safe, says … Slate

Filed under: Business, Environment, Health, Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In Slate, William Saletan on the FUD campaign that has been waged against genetically modified foods:

Is genetically engineered food dangerous? Many people seem to think it is. In the past five years, companies have submitted more than 27,000 products to the Non-GMO Project, which certifies goods that are free of genetically modified organisms. Last year, sales of such products nearly tripled. Whole Foods will soon require labels on all GMOs in its stores. Abbott, the company that makes Similac baby formula, has created a non-GMO version to give parents “peace of mind.” Trader Joe’s has sworn off GMOs. So has Chipotle.

Some environmentalists and public interest groups want to go further. Hundreds of organizations, including Consumers Union, Friends of the Earth, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Center for Food Safety, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, are demanding “mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods.” Since 2013, Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut have passed laws to require GMO labels. Massachusetts could be next.

The central premise of these laws — and the main source of consumer anxiety, which has sparked corporate interest in GMO-free food — is concern about health. Last year, in a survey by the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of Americans said it’s generally “unsafe to eat genetically modified foods.” Vermont says the primary purpose of its labeling law is to help people “avoid potential health risks of food produced from genetic engineering.” Chipotle notes that 300 scientists have “signed a statement rejecting the claim that there is a scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs for human consumption.” Until more studies are conducted, Chipotle says, “We believe it is prudent to take a cautious approach toward GMOs.”

The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all declared that there’s no good evidence GMOs are unsafe. Hundreds of studies back up that conclusion. But many of us don’t trust these assurances. We’re drawn to skeptics who say that there’s more to the story, that some studies have found risks associated with GMOs, and that Monsanto is covering it up.

I’ve spent much of the past year digging into the evidence. Here’s what I’ve learned. First, it’s true that the issue is complicated. But the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.

H/T to Coyote Blog for the link.

May 15, 2015

QotD: Portuguese genetics

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

On the face of it it sounds like the nice narrative we are fed every time something like this happens. I haven’t been following the international scene, and frankly it wouldn’t even surprise me if Europe headed for nativism and blood-related nationality. It is what is at the basis of their nation states (even if it’s often a lie. For instance I’d hazard that a lot of people in Portugal — yes, d*mn it, I’ll do the DNA testing. Let the house sell and let me have some money first — are as mixed as Americans. My kids call Portugal the reservoir tip at the end of Europe, which is unkind but somewhat accurate since that portion of land was part of the Celtic commonwealth, before being invaded by Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Germanic tribes, Moors (though their contribution in the North is minimal as the North was usually administered by overseers with little or no actual colonization) French crusaders, Viking raiders. Then there were British and Irish merchants due to ties going back before the Carthaginians who would set up trading posts, send their younger sons over, sometimes engage in a bit of raiding, etc. There are unkind proverbs about blue eyed Portuguese, but there are also a lot of them. (Two of my grandparents. A third was green eyed.) And in the end sometimes I think all of us are the result of some girl who tripped (on purpose or not) while evading a foreigner. All this to say that when my dad talks of the “The Portuguese Race” (and boy, does he) he’s mostly talking of a mythical entity. But it’s one they all believe in as hard as they can.)

Sarah A. Hoyt, “Multiculturalism IS Racism”, According to Hoyt, 2015-04-04.

April 22, 2015

Dog breeds in danger of extinction

Filed under: History, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Rosie Cima looks at the complex relationship between humans and dogs … dog breeds, that is:

Skye Terrier (via Wikipedia)

Skye Terrier (via Wikipedia)

Meet the Skye terrier. Named after the Scottish Isle of Skye, he’s one of the oldest terriers in the world — with a lineage tracing back to the Middle Ages. He’s also been a very popular dog in his day. Queen Victoria kept several as pets starting a fashion trend. Mary, Queen of Scots kept one, which hid under her skirt at her execution. Famously loyal, “plucky but dignified”, and an important cultural icon, this is the kind of dog people erect statues of. In fact, they have.

Want one? Better act fast: the breed could go extinct in your lifetime.

Skye terrier breeders are doing their best to change the tide, but things don’t look good. The global population is between 3,500 and 4,000, making the once-common breed one of the rarest in the world. Skye terriers are rarer than red pandas. In the UK, there were only 17 puppies of the Skye terrier breed registered in 2013. Breeders say they need 300 births a year to maintain a healthy population and avoid complications from inbreeding.

How did this happen?

For most of human/canine history, dog breeds evolved gradually, alongside human society, to fill different functional roles as they were needed. If a society or economy shifted, and the role was no longer needed, the breed ceased to exist. Those dogs were either bred for a different purpose or were subsumed into the general dog population.

April 3, 2015

Perhaps the New York Times needs to back away from science coverage

Filed under: Media, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Alex B. Berezow makes a case for the venerable New York Times to not cover science stories:

What has gone so wrong for the NYT? Many things are to blame. The paper’s leftish editorial page is out of step with a large portion of the American public. A high-profile scandal, in which journalist Jayson Blair was caught fabricating articles, damaged its credibility. The biggest factor, however, is the rise of credible challengers — both print and digital — that simply do better journalism. There is little incentive to spend money to read the NYT when superior news coverage (and more sensible editorializing) can be found elsewhere.

The NYT‘s science coverage is particularly galling. While the paper does employ a staff of decent journalists (including several excellent writers, such as Carl Zimmer and John Tierney), its overall science coverage is trite. Other outlets cover the same stories (and many more), in ways that are both more in-depth and more interesting. (They are also usually free to read.) Worst of all, too much of NYT‘s science journalism is egregiously wrong.


Reliance on fringe, pseudoscientific sources has become something of a trend at the NYT. Its most deplorable reportage involves the science of food, particularly GMOs. Henry Miller, the former founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, reprimands anti-GMO foodie Mark Bittman for “journalistic sloppiness” and “negligence” in his “[inability] to find reliable sources.”

Furthermore, in a damning exposé, Jon Entine reveals that Michael Pollan, a food activist and frequent NYT contributor, “has a history of promoting discredited studies and alarmist claims about GMOs.” Even worse, Mr. Entine writes that Mr. Pollan “candidly says he manipulated the credulous editors at the New York Times… by presenting only one side of food and agriculture stories.” Mr. Pollan was also chided by plant scientist Steve Savage for disseminating inaccurate information on potato agriculture and fearmongering about McDonald’s French fries.

On many matters concerning nutrition or health, the NYT endorses the unscientific side of the debate. For instance, The Atlantic criticized a New York Times Magazine essay on the supposed toxicity of sugar. At Science 2.0, Hank Campbell mocked an NYT writer’s endorsement of gluten-free diets, and chemist Josh Bloom dismantled a painfully inaccurate editorial on painkillers.

March 20, 2015

Epigenetic researchers – “We can double the size of these bugs!” Everyone else – “No, thanks. We’re good.”

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Science can be a great source of fascinating experiments. Doubling the size of insects is perhaps not the best way to advertise your particular speciality, however:

Florida carpenter ants

Researchers have changed the size of a handful of Florida ants by chemically modifying their DNA, rather than by changing its encoded information. The work is the latest advance from a field known as epigenetics and may help explain how the insects — despite their high degree of genetic similarity — grow into the different varieties of workers needed in a colony.

This discovery “takes the field leaps and bounds forward,” says entomologist Andrew Suarez of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who wasn’t connected to the study. “It’s providing a better understanding of how genes interact with the environment to generate diversity.”

Ant nests have division of labor down pat. The queen spends her time pumping out eggs, and the workers, which are genetically similar sisters, perform all the other jobs necessary to keep the colony thriving, such as tending the young, gathering food, and excavating tunnels. Workers in many ant species specialize even further, forming so-called subcastes that look different and have different roles. In Florida carpenter ants (Camponotus floridanus), for example, workers tend to fall into two groups. Minor workers, which can be less than 6 mm long, rear the young and forage for food. Major workers, which can be almost twice as long, use their large jaws to protect the colony from predators.

A team from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, suspected that the mechanism involves DNA methylation: the addition of a chemical to DNA. Genome sequencing and other methods suggest that these physical differences don’t usually stem from genetic differences between individual ants. Instead, environmental factors help push workers to become majors or minors — specifically, the amount of food and coddling that young ants receive. But just how do these factors change the size of ants?

February 20, 2015

The not-so-binary nature of sex

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In Nature, Claire Ainsworth explains why it’s becoming more difficult to discuss sex as a binary:

Sex can be much more complicated than it at first seems. According to the simple scenario, the presence or absence of a Y chromosome is what counts: with it, you are male, and without it, you are female. But doctors have long known that some people straddle the boundary — their sex chromosomes say one thing, but their gonads (ovaries or testes) or sexual anatomy say another. Parents of children with these kinds of conditions — known as intersex conditions, or differences or disorders of sex development (DSDs) — often face difficult decisions about whether to bring up their child as a boy or a girl. Some researchers now say that as many as 1 person in 100 has some form of DSD.

When genetics is taken into consideration, the boundary between the sexes becomes even blurrier. Scientists have identified many of the genes involved in the main forms of DSD, and have uncovered variations in these genes that have subtle effects on a person’s anatomical or physiological sex. What’s more, new technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that almost everyone is, to varying degrees, a patchwork of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that might not match that of the rest of their body. Some studies even suggest that the sex of each cell drives its behaviour, through a complicated network of molecular interactions. “I think there’s much greater diversity within male or female, and there is certainly an area of overlap where some people can’t easily define themselves within the binary structure,” says John Achermann, who studies sex development and endocrinology at University College London’s Institute of Child Health.

These discoveries do not sit well in a world in which sex is still defined in binary terms. Few legal systems allow for any ambiguity in biological sex, and a person’s legal rights and social status can be heavily influenced by whether their birth certificate says male or female.

“The main problem with a strong dichotomy is that there are intermediate cases that push the limits and ask us to figure out exactly where the dividing line is between males and females,” says Arthur Arnold at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies biological sex differences. “And that’s often a very difficult problem, because sex can be defined a number of ways.”

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