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The value of life

coffee and tea doodles

value is what we make it

Episode 3 / Season 13 of WNYC’s Radiolab asks, “What is the value of human life?” in a story titled, Worth.

This article questions how much life is actually worth to us. On the street, they put the question to passers-by in the form of, “What would one year of healthy, productive life be worth to you?”

Answers ranged from the ridiculously small ($5 – surely life is worth more than a Venti Frappacuinno at Starbucks) to the absurdly high ($10,000,000 – perhaps it would we worth that to someone with a net worth in the billions, but probably not for the average person.

Is a year worth the salary you make in a year? Apparently non-working spouses (or young children) are worth zero.

Is it the same value for every person? Is a year of my life worth as much as that of a fortune 500 CEO’s. The President? A Nobel Prize winner? A crack dealer?

Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Evidence of Man for Eons to Come

I don’t mean to exclude women at all, in fact, I really mean that evidence of humans show signs of lasting for eons to come, but it just didn’t sound like a title to me.

ImageAnyway, what do I mean?

Enter Plastiglomerate rock.

Science magazine explains, ” When the plastic melts, it cements rock fragments, sand, and shell debris together, or the plastic can flow into larger rocks and fill in cracks and bubbles to form a kind of junkyard Frankenstein.” Hawaii appears to have just that perfect mix of steady volcanic activity and trash-generating humans to spawn these new rocks.

ImagePatricia Corcoran, of the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, describes how the accumulation of plastic waste material since the 1950s has resulted in this phenomenon of plastic entering into the fossil / geologic record. The unique characteristics of Pacific Ocean create what is known as the North Pacific Gyre, that collects and concentrates waste of all kinds into an area known as the Eastern Garbage Patch. Kamilo beach, located on the southern tip of the big island, provides an excellent place for this vast amount of marine – and now human- debris to accumulate. Once this trash – including a significant amount  of long-lived plastic- comes into contact with the volcanic islands of the Pacific, it has the opportunity to become Imagefused, via the heat of the lava, with this igneous rock and sand resulting in the newly minted plastiglomerate rock which can now settle onto the sea floor and become a ‘permanent’ part of the fossil record. Perhaps these rocks will become the coprolites of our age, abundant records of our waste, for future generations to find.

 
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Posted by on June 6, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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The Human Genome… genes on chromosomes

I was spending some time on stack exchange’s biology section the other day, when I saw an interesting question that someone had about how genes are arranged on chromosomes.

In answering his question, I picked up a couple of screen shots and links that I thought I should share here.

The query was included the following (paraphrased):

How are genes  arranged on the chromosome, are they were all in a single direction and how does the cell ‘know’ which direction they are in?

The best way to approach this question is to take advantage of the amazing amount of resources compiled at the NIH’s National Library of Medicine…

One fun place to start is the Genome Page, which looks like this:

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Note the 22+ X and Y chromosomes on the lefthand side of the page. Each chromosome is clickable and will take you to a chromosome page that looks like this:

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Map view of H. sapiens Chromosome 14

Genes are listed on the right side of this map with locations of each indicated through a set of nested maps on the left. Each gene is clickable, providing links to the research done supporting these map placements and functions of the gene/protein. You can also easily use this information to jump to the homologous gene found in any of a number of fully sequenced organisms.

Below the map of the chromosome is a legend that indicates additional information and shows how much detail that each of the maps you are observing provides.

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The amount of data is overwhelming, but you can adjust how much detail is shown in order to get the ‘lay of the land’ for a specific chromosome without getting too lost. If you have a gene you want to find, you can also pinpoint it this way and see what other genes are located nearby (and therefor ‘linked’ to your gene).

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huMMR gene, chromosome 10

I searched for the Human Macrophage Mannose Receptor (a protein I made antibodies against when I worked for Medarex). This gene is located on chromosome 10, as indicated by the red dots. 212 references provide sequence information about this gene and protein.

If you keep going down the rabbit hole, you can see each of the DNA sequences that were used to identify and locate this gene on the chromosome (I omitted providing an illustration of this page because it is hard to get anything from it if shrunk down of prevented piecemeal. However, you can go to this page by following this link).

Finally, you are given the links to the complete coding sequence (cds), which has the actual sequence of the gene and protein as well as notes about how it is put together. In my mind, these are the bread and butter of this site, and probably the oldest reference pages that have provided gene hunters data for several decades now. 

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Ahh, data I can use!!

 …

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A slice of sequence info

It’s easy to see this as way too much information to be useful (hence the problem of ‘Big Data’ in Biology), but it’s also extremely cool, and I have to admit that I’ve gotten just as lost in tracing the data on genes using this site as I did walking from topic to topic in the Encyclopedia when I was a kid.

So… to answer the questions posed above, you can use this site to see that many genes lie in different direction along the chromosome. Why the cell doesn’t get ‘confused’ is because the cell doesn’t try to arrange data like we do in volumes of books meant to be read in order. Each gene is regulated, transcribed and translated according to its own local rules, as if ‘unaware’ of all that’s going on around it.

 

 
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Posted by on September 8, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Science Denialism – continued

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Human glial chimeric mice are faster learners across a range of behavioral tests

Although this entry is not really science denialism, I did think it serendipitous when I heard Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air interviewing Emily Anthes  about her book, Frankenstein’s Cat. The connection is that both journalists spoke about the intersection of science and society. Mr. Specter spoke more about how important it is for our politicians to heed the advice of scientists (among other things), while Ms. Anthes appeared to be more skeptical of accepting science without seriously questioning the morals and ethics of each advance.

As I write this, I know that I am much more in line with the views of Mr. Specter and believe that science offers society hope for the future, but I can’t help but notice that it appears that I am counseling against ethical consideration. This is not the case, however I sometimes wonder if people give fair consideration to values of society as a whole in these issues, or if they just get caught up in a knee-jerk reaction.

Let me see if I can provide one quick example of what I mean when I say this: I also heard a recent report of human –> mouse glial cell transplant resulting in the animals showing substantial gains in the rapidity in which they could solve mazes. At the end of this report, the journalist questioned whether this raised ethical challenges because these mice were now ‘superior’ to other mice. This implied that these animals were more intelligent and this made them more human-like . Although I understand the basis for this question, there are much more human-like animals that are subject to scientific investigation than mice. The question of whether a pretty smart mouse exceeded the consideration given to the health and welfare of dogs or non-human primates is probably a long way off.

 
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Posted by on March 13, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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How Old (Con’t)

From 1912 until about 1953, biologists interested in human evolution were being duped.

One hundred years ago, Charles Dawson presented his new find, a transitional fossil of an organism that plainly appeared part human and part ape, bearing a number of hallmarks of being a ‘missing link’ between modern man and early ancestors.. The fossil, found in Piltdown, England and was dubbed Eoanthropus dawsoni and was accepted as a welcome addition to the record of humanity’s existence.

It was just what was expected.

Piltdown_gang_(dark)

The Piltdown Gang

Expectations make fertile soil for a hoax.  Darwin’s work predicted such a find would be made. The question was merely, who would find it? What would it look like? And how famous would this make the man who discovered it?

“Sir Arthur Keith, famous British paleontologist, spent more than five years piecing together the fragments of what he called a ‘remarkable’ discovery. He said the brain case was ‘primitive in some respects but in all its characteristics distinctly human.'”1

Over time, When the skull fragments of E. dawsoni, commonly called Piltdown man, were examined, doubts were raised as to whether it represented a single organism or several, which just happened to become mixed together in the unearthing. But these doubts took decades to culminate into action.

The best way to address the question was to determine whether the several pieces of skull were at least contemporaries of one another. They could still be a jumble, but it was a start. To assess the age of the fragments, fluorine dating was done. This method is used to determine the amount of time that a sample has been buried underground. The principle is that groundwater contains fluorine and the longer a sample remains buried, the more fluorine will become absorbed into the sample. This testing confirmed that the samples could still have come from the same source, but that they were both considerably more recent that initially suggested.2

708px-Pildown_manFollowing this analysis, Carbon dating gave a more accurate age of the samples themselves indicating that they were both quite recent, but not from the same organism. Once this data came in, the house of cards fell and a number of other observations came to light confirming the hoax.

What does this teach us?

1. Science is difficult business. When everyone is working honestly, it is difficult. When people are willfully trying to subvert the process, it can take years to remedy. (I immediately think of the damage done by Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent 1998 Lancet paper and subsequent work that undermined the public’s trust in vaccines)

2. Science is self-correcting. Again, this can take time, but eventually, mistakes are worked out and our understanding of the world gradually improves.

3. People are people. With an obvious prize, people sometimes make their own luck.

4. No single experiment will always give accurate data. Extra-ordinary claims require extra-ordinary evidence.

References

1. “The Piltdown Man Discovery: Unveiling of a Monolith Memorial”Nature 142, 196-197 (30 July 1938) | doi:10.1038/142196a0

2. “Relative Dating of the Piltdown Skull” Kenneth P. Oakley, Advancement of Science 1950

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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