Wednesday Web Watch for July 16, 2014

Hats off to writer & blogger Hank Campbell and his science forum Science 2.0 where he recently challenged a review in the British Journal of Nutrition that found the “nutritional quality and safety of organic food was higher than conventional foods.”  Campbell provides highly compelling reasons why we should not take the Journal review too seriously.  A favorite passage, referring to one of the authors of the review, Charles Benbrook, is “[d]id this economist reinvent toxicology? Do toxic organic pesticides dissolve into rainbows when they are placed on a delivery truck? How can there so many fewer residues on organic food when it is known organic growers simply use different pesticides, not fewer?”  Another, once again referring to Benbrook, “he is an economist, not a biologist. Nothing wrong with economists talking about science, but if environmentalists and Mother Jones don’t let economists overturn climate studies, why would they endorse it in biology? That’s a mystery.”  Read Campbell’s insightful review here.

Tuesday Triple Trivia Tease for July 15, 2014

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

1.  In what area might genetics be making yet another impact?


Answer: turns out there’s a “genetics of taste” opening the door even further for a better understanding of consumer food choices and related repercussions, like obesity and disease.  Genetic markers may provide insight into what makes some run to the veggie aisle while others gravitate toward the ice cream section of a grocery store.   While genetic factors may influence choices and tastes, one likely should not completely discount the impact of acquired family eating habits, nutritional education, income or indolence versus diligence when it comes to making a meal from scratch.  In other words, while genetics may provide additional and meaningful information in this area, it is merely a piece of the puzzle that, at this stage of research, should not be used as a pivotal excuse for ever-rising obesity rates and associated health effects in many parts of the world.  Read the details here.

2.  Forget botox.  What is the next generation of human enhancement taking shape?

Hint:Answer: biohacking refers to the subdermal insertion of technology to produce or enhance certain bodily sensations or functions.   Proponents of this movement query whether there is a true difference between having a pacemaker or other surgical implant and say, a magnet, computer chip or other technology embedded in one’s body to help it function better?  Opponents, on the other hand, differentiate between essential medical technology that allows one to live or function in the manner nature intended and biologically unnecessary technological transhumanist enhancements.   Embedding requires a trip to your local “body modification” shop or trial-and-error do-it-yourself surgery.  Read more here.

3.  While a cat is said to have 9 lives, what or who might be eligible for at least 2 lives in the years to come?


Answer: who will most likely benefit from scientific medical breakthroughs, possibly extending the lifespan for some well above 100 years? Not surprisingly, those who will be able to afford and have access to future extraordinary novelties currently being researched and concocted by clever and prescient scientists.   A longevity gap between the wealthy and the poor is nothing new – what is new is the potential considerable increase in size of the gap, whereby the underprivileged live to age 60 and the privileged to age 120.  Read the story here.

An Interesting Week in Genetics


genomics Picture1

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