Genetic Future Weblog

Ethics! Predictions! Gen-tech news! Commentary!

Aha! This vindicates my assertion that we should change language so that people are either normal or lactose-resistant, instead of lactose-intolerant and normal.

Thanks to gregoryp™ for the reference.

A surprisingly recent instance of human evolution has been detected among the peoples of East Africa. It is the ability to digest milk in adulthood, conferred by genetic changes that occurred as recently as 3,000 years ago, a team of geneticists has found.

09 8th, 2005

Scientists at Newcastle University have been given approval for new research aimed at combating a particular set of inherited human diseases: those that are passed on via mitochondrial DNA instead of the nuclear DNA most folks are familiar with. The trick? They’ll be creating human embryos that are the product of two mothers and one father. Here’s the background:

Nuclear DNA includes thousands of genes, and is given credit for making you who you are, and is in fact the only DNA considered when discussing the human “genome”. Mitochondrial DNA (MtDNA) only has 37 genes and doesn’t change much from individual to individual. However, that doesn’t mean that MtDNA isn’t capable of expressing diseases of its own.

So if you’re a mom who suffers from a mitochondrial disease, how do you keep from passing it on to your baby? According to the Newcastle researchers, here’s what you do: extract healthy ooplasm (including MDNA) from a different mom’s egg cell and insert it into one of your own egg cells. Then fertilize it with the father’s sperm in the usual way (with glass rods and tubes and such) and presto! Healthy baby.

Trigger-finger ethics watchdogs suggest that you’ve just broken a new taboo — making an embryo that has two moms and one dad. Supporters would respond by saying that the nuclear DNA is the only “important” DNA, so who cares if the mitochondrial DNA (or the egg-vehicle) comes from someone else?

Myself, I’m on the fence with this one. Most people would agree that there’s something ethically suspicious about making better babies by combining nuclear DNA from two moms. And while mitochondrial DNA doesn’t obviously code for things like blue eyes or long limbs, it does interact with nuclear DNA, working together for the expression and use of certain proteins. Will we discover some day that the rare and small differences found in MtDNA somehow have subtle (or profound) effects on the human phenotype — who we are and how we behave? If so, then mixing one mom’s DNA with the another mom’s MtDNA could lead us into ethically uncertain waters.

On the other hand, why not go for broke? Let’s use a surrogate mother for the womb too. Then we’ll have three mothers involved in the production of a newborn! Just imagine the positive impact such practices could have on profits on Mother’s Day… 🙂

[ Reference: BBC News ]

Koreans Clone Dog

Author: Canton
08 30th, 2005

The Koreans have cloned a dog. This must have Texas-based Genetic Savings and Clone ($50K to clone your pet, cats only for now) steaming jealous…

The Register (UK)

07 11th, 2005

“Is meat vegetarian if it doesn’t come from an animal?” This was the ethics question gregoryP posed me this morning after coming across this article from the U. Maryland News Desk:


The idea of culturing meat is to create an edible product that tastes like cuts of beef, poultry, pork, lamb or fish and has the nutrients and texture of meat.

Scientists know that a single muscle cell from a cow or chicken can be isolated and divided into thousands of new muscle cells. Experiments with fish tissue have created small amounts of in vitro meat in NASA experiments researching potential food products for long-term space travel, where storage is a problem.

“But that was a single experiment and was geared toward a special situation – space travel,” says Matheny. “We need a different approach for large scale production.”

Matheny’s team developed ideas for two techniques that have potential for large scale meat production. One is to grow the cells in large flat sheets on thin membranes. The sheets of meat would be grown and stretched, then removed from the membranes and stacked on top of one another to increase thickness.

But why stop at growing fake chicken? If a single cell is being divided into a whole flank of tender meat, we could conceivably start growing celebrity meat. If consumers will pay $9.50 to merely see Brad Pitt at the movies, imagine how much they’ll pay to eat Brad Pitt!

The results of a study published this week suggest an undeniable connection between genetics and sexual behavior — at least with fruit flies.

A single gene appears to be responsible for whether a fruit fly will court male or females, regardless of its own gender.

[ From Medical News Today ]
A male fly’s sexual courtship of a female fly is a complicated business of tapping, singing, wing vibration, and licking, but a single gene is all that is needed to produce this complex behavior, according to new research published in this week’s issue of the journal Cell.

Dickson and Demir created male-spliced versions of fruitless in female flies and female-spliced versions in male flies. Males with the female version of fruitless “barely court at all” when paired with virgin female flies in an observation chamber, according to the researchers.

Males with the female fruitless splice form were also more likely to court other males than flies with the male form, suggesting that male-specific fruitless splicing “not only promotes male-female courtship, it also inhibits male-male courtship,” the researchers say.

Dickson and Demir refer to fruitless as a behavioral “switch gene” that is both necessary and sufficient to produce a particular behavior. Switch genes that trigger the development of a particular anatomical feature like wing structure have been studied extensively, but there are very few studies of switch genes that control a complex behavior, the researchers note.

None of the news is bold enough to suggest a human connection, i.e. a genetic basis for homosexuality, but it’s hard to overlook the fact that fruit flies share 60% of their genes with humans. Furthermore, fruit flies have been a hot subject for study since 2000, when it was discovered that they employ eerily similar genetic mechanisms as humans for morphological development into adults. [Didn’t your heart race during that brief excitement in 2000 when virtually all 13,601 genes belonging to the fruit fly genome were decoded?]

05 22nd, 2005

“The impetus to find new methods of enhancement is not going to stop,” said Miah. “We need to draw a line under drug use and consider gene modification as a separate technology. It is a legitimate use of a technology that can improve humanity, not make it less human.”

From “Gene Therapy Promises the Holy Grail” Telegraph

Chicken Genome Sequenced

Author: Canton
12 9th, 2004

Gleaned from Yahoo News (via Reuters):

LONDON (Reuters) – Scientists have cracked the genetic code of the chicken, showing it shares about 60 percent of its genes with humans and has a common ancestor that lived about 310 million years ago…

12 7th, 2004

Apparently, there’s speculation that the Columbian drug cartels have been working on genetically modified coca plants. Whether GM technology is being used or not, it does appear that new crops are popping up that are herbicide resistant and produce eight times the yield of cocaine:

From a Reuters release:

BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) – Giant coca plants said to resist herbicides and yield eight times more cocaine may be due to extra fertilizer, not a drug cartel’s genetic modification program, a scientist said on Tuesday.

A Colombian police intelligence dossier quoted in the Financial Times said smugglers apparently received help from foreign scientists to develop a herbicide-resistant tree that yields eight times more cocaine than normal shrubs.

But a toxicologist who studied the plants for the police said he knew of no evidence that showed whether the plants were genetically modified or merely grew big because they received an unusually large amount of fertilizer.

“We regularly hear rumors that narcotraffickers are working to create a transgenic form of coca, but there is no scientific proof that they have undertaken such research,” Phyllis Powers, Director of the Narcotics Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, said at the time.

Well it doesn’t look like we’ve got giant GM coca monster plants yet… but it’s not at all inconceivable. When you look at plants that have pharmocological value to humans, the evolution of those plants often gets kicked into overdrive.

A really (really!) great read is The Botany of Desire – A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan. In it, he talks about how one way of looking the evolution of plants is to consider how they have “used” humans. This is in the sense of how a flower “uses” a bumblebee. The bumblebee thinks it’s just using the flower to satisfy its needs, but the flower thinks it’s just the other way around. Michael Pollan considers how four plants — the potato, the tulip, the apple, and marijuana — have used humans to advance their own agenda.

When you think about it, marijuana has done this amazing job of using humans to extend its reach through the biosphere. I doubt any plant has ever expanded its habitat as quickly as pot has in the last thirty years. It grows in pitch-black basements, in frozen Scandanavian cities, and it will no doubt be grown in space someday.

Yes, this all happens with the help of humans and our technology, but to deny that we play a part in natural evolution would be like denying that bees play that same role. Have you ever seen how a beehive works? They have technology too!

12 3rd, 2004

My friend Steve Miller, prolific creator of venerable innervision-arts site
and current events watchdog site pointed me to this page:

If you’ve ever read Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age then this post-apocalyptic corporate sales pitch should be familiar.

Take a moment to meditate on the future of you and your beloved manufacturers. Knowing that commerce without attrition can lead to the eventual extinction of your product line, isn’t it time you considered the fool-proof option of a fully controlled viral epidemic? Think of the instantaneous market share boost you would receive after your competitor’s labor population was attrited with a virus made just for them.


Gleaned from ic wales

I’ve got this on order from Amazon — found a used copy for $12. Will report on it later after I’ve read it…

Genetic mutants scoop book prize

Dec 2 2004

Karen Attwood

A book about human genetic mutation has won the Guardian First Book Award 2004, it was announced tonight.

Armand Marie Leroi, reader in evolutionary developmental biology at Imperial College, London, was presented with the £10,000 award for Mutants: On the Form, Varieties and Errors of the Human Body, described as a narrative account of our genetic grammar.

Theatre director Sir Richard Eyre, who was one of the judges, said Mutants was “extraordinarily thought-provoking”.

“It is not just about the science of abnormality, but about everything that could possibly be affected by that science, from the lifespan of fruit flies to the depiction of nostrils in the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec.”

This is the third time the award has been won by a non-fiction title since its launch six years ago.

The award, for first time authors, recognises and rewards new fiction and non-fiction writing.