An Interesting Week in Genetics


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by Gary Marchant

So the most recent estimate published this week is that humans only have about 19,000 protein-coding genes, down from previous estimates in the 22,000-25,000 range, and way down from the pre-Human Genome Project conventional wisdom that humans had 100,000-250,000 different genes. The new study is available online (for free).
But it has not only been an interesting week with regard to the number of human genes, but also with respect to what those genes do. There have been a burst of articles this week on genetic influences on human behavior and characteristics. For example, in an online New York Times op-ed on Tuesday, July 8, columnist Thomas B. Edsell reviews some recent studies suggesting that genetics play a major role in character traits such as “authoritarianism, religiousness and conservatism,” all of which likely influence political preferences and orientation.  Meanwhile, an article in this week’s Economist summarizes the results of a recently published study on musical ability and genetics with this admonition: “Practicing music without the right genes to back that practice up is indeed useless.”  And finally a new study just out finds that about half the genes influencing a child’s reading ability also play a role in their mathematics ability. (thanks to Kirk Hartley for this tip).
While the relationship between human behavior and genetics has been the subject of much hype and distortion in the past, there is no question that genetics (like the environment) play a major role in our behavior and abilities, and we are likely to get more and more findings going forward like those listed above reporting on associations between particular genetic variants and specific behaviors or abilities. As we enter the era of whole genome sequencing, most of the attention so far has been on the medical and health information that will be disclosed by sequencing, but the expanding repertoire of genetic variants affecting behavior will also be available once a person’s whole genome has been sequenced. Unlike the health data, there will likely be much less legal protections as most oversight only applies to health data (e.g., HIPAA privacy rules, FDA oversight). The only prediction that can be made with certainty is that it is going to be an “interesting” and rocky road ahead.

Wednesday Web Watch: Multitasking

What’s on your mind? When it comes to focus, this blog and accompanying video from “Brain Basics” @ Scientific American both indicate that while technology moves at a record pace and is able to multitask, we homo sapiens are… not.

Other Brain Basics videos:

Is Your Sense of Humor in Your Genes? Geneticists Crack the Code

Remember When…How Your Brain Builds A Memory

Terrified or Hopping Mad? What’s Going on Inside You



Tuesday Triple Trivia Tease for July 8, 2014

3 Questions. 3 Hints. 3 Answers.  Every Tuesday.

1. What technology now provides some measure of control over our social media accounts?


Answer: while we may not have comprehensive “right to be forgotten” legislation in effect in the U.S. we do have some limited options available to “control-alt-delete” embarrassing or hurtful things we may have said online in a fit of rage, drunkenness, stupidity, impulsiveness or otherwise.  If simply deleting your social media account is not your thing, just get the right app.  There are some new apps that enable messages to automatically self-destruct after a selected time period, while others allow you to manually delete a post or sets of posts you no longer wish to be associated with.  There are other options as well, such as managing and restricting your preferences (e.g. Facebook) or using a class of social media that purportedly doesn’t store your information on a news feed, such as Snapchat.  Read the story at

2. What do we apparently prefer doing when there is nothing to do?


Answer: we prefer doing…something, according to a new study published this past week in the journal Science.  The findings applied to both young and older folks suggesting that it is not the result of the fast-paced and technology-driven world we live in.  This probably explains why we find it so difficult to engage in meditation and why it can take months or years to master the craft of not just being alone in one’s thoughts but shutting them off completely.

3. Why might it be easier for Tibetans, from a physical standpoint, to conquer Everest?


Answer: Tibetans tend to manage very well under low-oxygen and high-altitude conditions likely due in part to a rare variant of a heritable gene (EPAS1) involved in carrying oxygen in the blood.  The gene variant is linked to a group of extinct humans known as the Denisovans.  This is the first time a study has established a link between contemporary environmental adjustment and a gene derived from a primitive human species.  Read more here.

Blog Share: The Network for Public Health Law

Our Center Faculty is associated with many fine and exemplary national institutions.   We occasionally give a platform to such establishments as they present engaging and important issues relating to law, science and/or technology.   The Network for Public Health Law (The Network) is one such organization.   According to its website, The Network “provides insightful legal assistance, helpful resources and opportunities to build connections for local, tribal, state and federal officials; public health practitioners; attorneys; policy-makers; and advocates. Organizations and individuals committed to improving public health can join the Network.”   Center Faculty Fellow, Professor James G. Hodge Jr. is affiliated with The Network and recently, along with two co-authors, published an insightful article on The Network that explores gun violence in hospital settings, entitled Active Shooters in Hospital Environments: Time for Legal Prevention, for your information and interest.

Wednesday Web Watch: Public vs. Private Scientific Research – an ethical difference?

Wednesday Web Watch:

Is a new blog component where we link to a relevant external blog and site and promote the site in a window (to right of our posts) for the duration of the month.  This week’s site is The Guardian Headquarters which features an article by Chris Chambers entitled Facebook fiasco: was Cornell’s study of ‘emotional contagion’ an ethics breach? Every Wednesday, we extrapolate from each article and raise a legal, ethical or scientific issue in connection with the featured story.

Yesterday,  The Guardian Headquarters posted a blog by Chris Chambers in connection with the recent controversial emotions study undertaken by Facebook Inc. and Cornell University,  recently published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  As many of you are aware, the study involved tweaking the language content of Facebook news feeds with either positive or negative wording and then monitoring the content of select users’ status updates to gain insight into emotional reactions to negative and positive news feeds.  The controversy stems from allegations that informed consent was not provided by the human subjects in anything close to an appropriate manner.  There primary sore points that have been flagged relate to, a) Facebook’s terms of service, updated after the fact (to provide for user information for “research”); b) the Institutional Review Board debacle; and c) if Facebook is, in fact, not subject to the legal standards and requirements relating to research involving human subjects, it should, nonetheless, have been more ethically sensitive.

In connection with Cornell’s involvement, Chambers writes that,  “publicly funded science is held to a higher ethical standard than comparable research in the private sector.  Once academic scientists get involved the bar is raised, never lowered (emphasis added).”  In terms of funding, the Cornell Chronicle notes that “[a]n earlier version of this story reported that the study was funded in part by the James S. McDonnell Foundation and the Army Research Office. In fact, the study received no external funding.”  Given Cornell’s statement and that Facebook is its own enterprise (albeit a public company) public funding (as in money generated by the government to grant goods and services to the general public) does not appear to be truly at issue here.  Of interest, however, is whether there should be a difference, as Chambers observes, in ethical standards within the scope of public versus private research?  Further, it is not uncommon for “academic scientists” to assist private industry with research and development in an area of expertise.  Are these scientists, when acting for a private entity not expected to perform and adhere to the same high standards as they would in, say, a public university setting?   Or is it only when academic scientists actually become involved in private research that the ethical bar gets raised within the private framework? Thoughts?


Tuesday Triple Trivia Tease for July 1, 2014

3 Questions. 3 Hints. 3 Answers. Every Tuesday.

Happy Canada Day, fellow Canucks!

1. From the personal genome to the personal microbiome, which technology is invoked with regard to the latter?


Answer: cell phones hold the fingerprint of all the little microorganisms in our possession.  With an 82% similarity rate between finger and phone with respect to the most common bacteria, namely, Strep, Staph and Corynebacterium, our smart devices reveal more than just our contact list and Facebook app.  Researchers are interested in the possibility of using personal effects to monitor individual health and environmental interactions.  Because it is typically with us 24/7, our phone is an optimal item for scientists to study.  Read the details here.

2.  Speaking of personal effects, what new, hot device is set to activate and (hopefully) maintain relationships with the flick of a wrist?


Answer:  Android has teamed up with by offering a watch with a dating app for those on the go who just don’t have time to connect via smartphone, tablet, laptop or snail mail.   The app allows users to receive and respond to messages, view and rate daily suggested “matches” and find singles nearby.  Dating has never been more stylish.  Read about the launch here.

3. In a world filled with video cameras of various types, shapes & sizes, camera-equipped drones, GPS, and other privacy-infringing devices, what “old” technology is being equipped with modern, Big Brother features?


Answer: in Chicago, street lights are going to be equipped with environmental information sensors that, among other things, observe the folks below.   As it relates to passersby, the system is intended to be limited to simply counting the number of people strolling along (via their mobile phones)… but who knows what additional secrets will be revealed?  Rest assured Chicago, according to your Commissioner of Information and Technology, the city has been “extremely sensitive to the security and privacy of residents’ data.”  Read more here.

Bonus Canadian Trivia!

Question: who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1923 for discovering insulin, eh?


Answer: Ah. No. It was actually Sir Frederick Banting.