Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Short story #1: La Marke

I strode up the steps of the courthouse with no small amount of trepidation. I didn't really want to be here. She was forcing me to  hate her. What's worse her actions were going to affect the children. I wished that the old days would return, when being each other meant more tan anything else. Nowadays she seemed concerned only with her investments.

I approached the information desk and asked for directions. Finding my way to the courtroom I sat down on the bench and waited. Looking around I did not see my blood-sucking wife. She was probably waiting around the corner ready to make one of her grandiose entrances. I took a wad of tobacco and began to chew. I disgusting habit to be honest, but chewing helped relieve the stress. Besides, I was long past trying to impress anybody. I chewed, I tapped my foot, I twiddled my fingers, little time passed before my impatience was apparent. As much I dreaded the upcoming battle, I was also eager to put the case behind me . People around me started to look and stare. I self-consciously stopped my tapping. I sighed. Staring up to the ceiling, I began to reminisce on the events that led to my current situation.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Random Thought: A Response to Carcinogenesis as Speciation.

In a recent article that has been making its rounds in layman news media, Duesberg et al. (2011) have been proposing that carcinogenesis should be considered speciation. In other words, this means that cancers should be considered new species and that the formation of cancers are, in fact, the creation of new species. This paper is both intriguing and shameful at the same time.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Random Thought: Genetics, Evolution, & Eugenics

A recent slew of articles in Science caught my attention. All the papers highlight the effect of epistatic interactions between beneficial mutations can cause a decline in the rate of increase of fitness of the population1,2,3.

A little background first. Evolution is the process by which a population changes in order to adapt to some selective pressure. This usually occurs by the weeding out of individuals who are not as fit as the others. As this occurs the fitness of the population as a whole increases.

In the lab we can study evolution in bacteria. We expose bacteria to a selective pressure and see how they adapt and evolve. With gene sequences we can tell exactly which genes have been altered/selected. The researchers of these papers did exactly this. In the one paper, researchers took, the bacteria and exposed it to low glucose (main food source) environment and looked at the adaptations that resulted2. The saw that there were five mutations that were being incorporated into the bacteria.  They showed that the decreases in the increases in the fitness could be attributed to negative epistatic (gene-gene interactions) effects between the beneficial. While I did read the paper I didn't really understand, it seems they did some math magic and some other stuff (not an evolutionary biologist, didn't really get everything they were talking about).

Anyways, this got me thinking about the current state of human evolution. In my opinion, humans are currently in a state of evolutionary limbo. Our technology, medicine (courtesy of our intellect) have overcome any environmental stimulus in place of any biological adaptations.People of all shapes, sizes, intellects, colours, dispositions, et cetera are breeding without regard to the increasing fitness of the human population (some breed merely for the concept of 'love'). There could, of course, be selective pressures that I am not taking into account (irony will probably have radio waves or some such man-made thing become our next selective pressure). Some have presented the solution to this problem: artificial selection.

Eugenics is process by which humans select traits that they wish future populations to have and breed accordingly. Eugenics also includes the selective breeding out of certain traits/diseases. Using this, we could theoretically, artificially evolve humanity. This is an impractical method though, for all of humanity would have to abide by the eugenics program (or at least one large enough to branch off into its own species). I'm of two minds on this topic.

On one hand, I wouldn't mind humanity evolving into a bunch of beautiful genius olympic-level athletes. By doing this we could accelerate our technological advancements as well as increase our physical preparedness for disaster. One of my fears is that our brains will become a limiting factor in our technological development. What happens when to advance the current state of science we have to study for 40 or 50 years just to get caught up. What happens when the 'basics' are beyond the capacity of the human brain. If we do not either become more intelligent and have higher brain capacity, eventually our technological development may not grow either. We could also rid ourselves of a number of genetic diseases, securing the medical future of our race.

On the other hand, I fear the repercussions. Evolution itself requires that there be variability in a population. Eugenics, is in essence a program in which we decrease the variability of our population. We remove those traits that we dislike or find unattractive and we keep only those that we like. Should we take this too far, we may face the same problems that our monoculture crops currently face. If a disease or other selective pressure comes in the future and we've removed so much variability in our species that no one individual has an immunity, we will have caused our own extinction. Furthermore, I don't believe we have enough knowledge of our bodies that we can make educated assumptions about what traits are truly beneficial. On its face, sickle cell anemia is a very detrimental disease, whereby red blood cells are deformed. This causes poor oxygen transport, which leads to a wide variety of symptoms. However, it does confer upon the individual an increased immunity to malaria. What if, in some future we discover that a gene that increases the risk of leukemia actually grants protection against HIV (or some other disease), but we've eliminated it from our population. We'd have lost a valuable, yet seemingly negative trait.

The obvious solution to this would be genetic engineering (another way we could artificially evolve). We keep track of all current traits and their various genetic permutations, and when we find one we want tor bring back, we just engineer it into our populations again. I didn't mention gene therapy/engineering in the same breath as eugenics due to the fact that the technology just isn't on par. We can and are (sperm/ova banks) implementing eugenics, but gene therapy for the purposes of evolution are far beyond our current capabilities. Setting aside the moral dilemmas that eugenics might create, I think we should hold off until we require it, or until we have a near complete understanding of the human body at a molecular level (all pathways mapped).
    1. Kryazhimskiy, S; Draghi, JA; and Plotkin, JB. 2011. In Evolution, the Sum is Less than its Parts. Science. 322:1160-1161
    2.Chou, HH; Chui, HC; Delaney, NF; Segre, D; and Marx, CJ. 2011. Diminishing Returns Among Beneficial Mutations Decelerates Adaptation. Science. 322:1190-1192
    3. Khan, AI; Dinh, DM; Schneider, D; Lenski, RE; Cooper, TF. 2011. Negative Epistasis Between Beneficial Mutations in an Evolving Bacterial Population. Science. 322:1193-1196

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Random Thought: Statistics in science

I was conversing with a friend of mine about the research project that she was doing and we both came to an agreement. Statistics should not be done by the researcher. There are two main reasons why I think that statistics on a set of data should not be done by the researcher who gathered the data.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Disney deaths

I know I'm not the first one to notice this but a lot of Disney villains die by falling. I recently watched the movie "Tangled". The movie was a fun romp but I didn't like the ending...


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Random thought: Greenhouse effect and solar energy

Comparing the effects of greenhouse effect and solar energy. I was thinking and I came to an odd thought: is it hypocritical/counter-intuitive to use solar energy to combat greenhouse effect.

Primer: The greenhouse effect that some believe is contributing climate change. Light penetrates the glass and heats the interior of the greenhouse (heating the surfaces it touches upon), the heat is then radiated into the air. Rather than letting it pass through the heat is absorbed into the greenhouse gases and then re-radiated outwards, sometimes back into the surface. End result is that the greenhouse is warmer than expected. More of the sun's energy remains upon the Earth rather than being reflected/radiated back into space.

The basis for solar energy is capturing sunlight and converting it into electricity. I know of two methods that they do this. The first is through photovoltaicism (probably spelled that wrong), whereby photons are absorbed by a metal and a current is generated. This is what you see on lawn lights and calculators. The second I know heats up a medium and then converts the heat energy into electricity, in much the same way as conventional electricity generation. This method uses mirrors instead of panels, to focus, rather than collect, the sunlight onto one spot. This spot is usually inhabited by something with a high specific heat capacity. something like molten salts. This way the energy is stored long after the sun has gone down. The heat is then used in some sort of engine to drive a turbine or otherwise generate electricity.

Overly simplistic thought: Greenhouse gases (CO2, CH4, etc.) trap the sun's energy and convert it into heat. Solar power traps the sun's energy and converts it into heat, and then into electricity or directly into electricity. This electricity will likely be used and will, eventually produce heat. So Is using solar power contributing to the problem rather than helping it.

The other green power sources don't run into this problem. Wind, geothermal,and tidal utilize energy already absorbed by the planet. This energy comes from within the earth, from the movement of the earth, from the movement of the moon around the earth, and from the sun (only the energy that would have originally been absorbed by the earth)

So, is solar power adding to the problem rather than solving it?

Edit/Update:  Something I forgot to mention. A relatively recent solar power idea that I've read about is to beam energy collected from space down to earth. This would likely be done from a geostationary satellite that gathers the sun's rays and transmits them down to a receiver platform on earth via laser or microwave. This is, in many ways worse than conventional solar power with regards to this article as solar energy that would have normally passed the Earth by would then be transmitted to the planet.

Earth hour

So, at 20:30 today it was Earth Hour. When you try to do your best to turn off all your electronic appliances and lights in order to save the planet just a little. Or at least something to that effect. By the end of the hour I realized that I probably wasn't really making a dent. Other than the otherwise minimal light-pollution that I emit, my other footprints didn't exactly shrink. Turning off all my lights and my computer saved a measly 5*13 (CFL lights) + 400W (computer assuming max power usage [unlikely]). A drop in the bucket compared to the other things in my house, the stove and the oven. While I realize that in the end my computer and my lights are on a lot longer, I doubt I made an impact. To be honest I think that the future of energy savings is in increased efficiency rather than reduced usage. I'm lazy. I'm much less likely to actively reduce the amount of time my electronics are on, rather I'm much more willing to upgrade my hardware to increase power efficiency. LED light bulbs, efficient computers, induction stoves... these are the future.