Facts, not Fantasy

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Evolution Bonanza

Today I am going to link to quite a few articles to catch up on some of the news since last time I made an entry. Although, if you click the title of this blog entry, it will bring you to the main page of Science Daily's evolution news. There's A LOT of stuff there to read. Some highlights:

Feathery Four-winged Dinosaur Fossil Found In China Bridges Transition To Birds. A fossil of a bird-like dinosaur with four wings has been discovered in northeastern China. The specimen bridges a critical gap in the transition from dinosaurs to birds, and reveals new insights into the origin evolution of feathers. The transition from dinosaurs to birds is poorly understood because of the lack of well-preserved fossils, and many scientists argue that bird-like dinosaurs appear too late in the fossil record to be the true ancestors of birds.

Scandinavians Are Descended From Stone Age Immigrants, Ancient DNA Reveals. Today's Scandinavians are not descended from the people who came to Scandinavia at the conclusion of the last ice age but, apparently, from a population that arrived later, concurrently with the introduction of agriculture. This is one conclusion of a new study straddling the borderline between genetics and archaeology, which involved Swedish researchers and which has now been published in the journal Current Biology. "The hunter-gatherers who inhabited Scandinavia more than 4,000 years ago had a different gene pool than ours," explains Anders Götherström of the Department of Evolutionary Biology at Uppsala University, who headed the project together with Eske Willerslev of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen.

Getting A Leg Up On Whale And Dolphin Evolution: New Comprehensive Analysis Sheds Light On The Origin Of Cetaceans. When the ancestors of living cetaceans—whales, dolphins and porpoises—first dipped their toes into water, a series of evolutionary changes were sparked that ultimately nestled these swimming mammals into the larger hoofed animal group. But what happened first, a change from a plant-based diet to a carnivorous diet, or the loss of their ability to walk? A new paper published this week in PLoS ONE resolves this debate using a massive data set of the morphology, behavior, and genetics of living and fossil relatives. Cetacean ancestors probably moved into water before changing their diet (and their teeth) to include carnivory; Indohyus, a 48-million year-old semi-aquatic herbivore, and hippos fall closest to cetaceans when the evolutionary relationships of the larger group are reconstructed.

First Evolutionary Branching For Bilateral Animals Found. When it comes to understanding a critical junction in animal evolution, some short, simple flatworms have been a real thorn in scientists’ sides. Specialists have jousted over the proper taxonomic placement of a group of worms called Acoelomorpha. This collection of worms, which comprises roughly 350 species, is part of a much larger group called bilateral animals, organisms that have symmetrical body forms, including humans, insects and worms. The question about acoelomorpha, was: Where do they fit in? To scientists, acoelomorpha, has been enigmatic, a “rogue animal,” said Casey Dunn, an evolutionary biologist at Brown University. “It has been wandering throughout the animal tree of life.”

Mutations Make Evolution Irreversible: By Resurrecting Ancient Proteins, Researchers Find That Evolution Can Only Go Forward. A University of Oregon research team has found that evolution can never go backwards, because the paths to the genes once present in our ancestors are forever blocked. The findings -- the result of the first rigorous study of reverse evolution at the molecular level -- appear in the Sept. 24 issue of Nature. The team used computational reconstruction of ancestral gene sequences, DNA synthesis, protein engineering and X-ray crystallography to resurrect and manipulate the gene for a key hormone receptor as it existed in our earliest vertebrate ancestors more than 400 million years ago. They found that over a rapid period of time, five random mutations made subtle modifications in the protein's structure that were utterly incompatible with the receptor's primordial form.

Molecular Evidence Supports Key Tenet Of Darwin's Evolution Theory. An international team of researchers, including Monash University biochemists, has discovered evidence at the molecular level in support of one of the key tenets of Darwin's theory of evolution. Monash University's Professor Trevor Lithgow said the breakthrough, funded by the Australian Research Council and published recently in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provides a blueprint for a general understanding of the evolution of the "machinery" of our cells. "Our cells, and the cells of all organisms, are composed of molecular machines. These machines are built of component parts, each of which contributes a partial function or structural element to the machine. How such sophisticated, multi-component machines could evolve has been somewhat mysterious, and highly controversial." Professor Lithgow said.

Mechanism That Constructs Key Brain Structure Discovered. Yale University researchers have found a molecular mechanism that allows the proper mixing of neurons during the formation of columns essential for the operation of the cerebral cortex, they report in the Sept. 16 online issue of the journal Nature. Scientists have known for years that information processing in the cerebral cortex depends upon groupings of neurons that assemble in the shape of vertical columns. If the number and mix of neurons in the column are wrong, severe cognitive problems can result. For instance, malformations of these columns have been implicated in some forms of autism and mental retardation. Scientists, however, have not been able to find the molecular mechanism responsible for this intermixing.

Dr. Plait Update:
I’m leaving, on a jet plane… but I do know when I’ll be back again. But between now and then I’m off to jolly old to attend TAM London! So this is a short post designed to buy me a few hours.
1) Remember the homeopath and his wife who killed their nine-month-old daughter, because she had severe eczema and all they did was give her nothing but water (because that’s what homeopathic "medicine" is)? Yeah, they got six years in jail.

2) Antivax groups aren’t getting smarter about medicine, but they are getting smarter about branding. They call themselves Talking About Curing Autism and Operation Rescue, but don’t be fooled: they are antivaccination, pure and simple. And whether they believe what they say or not, they are not supporting children. They are putting them at grave risk of illness and death from preventable diseases.
Worse, if you read that link you’ll see that TACA is sponsoring a concert to raise funds for their antivax efforts, and got the radio station JACK 93.1 to partner with them. Lots of big names will be at the concert, and all the money will go toward a group that may in fact want to help autistic kids, but is also spreading gross misinformation about vaccines while doing it.

3) And finally, a ray of hope: the New York Times posted an article debunking antivax swine flu nonsense. Yay!

Girl dies shortly after vaccine shot

That headline above is factually accurate. Of course, most people reading it will assume that the vaccination caused the death. But we have no evidence of that yet, so try not to jump to conclusions.

The Daily Mail is reporting that a young woman, aged 14, died shortly after receiving a vaccine shot (they call them "jabs" in the UK) for HPV, to prevent cervical cancer. They are reporting that about an hour after the shot she became pale, stopped breathing, and fainted. Rescuers were not able to save her.

This story, first and foremost, is horrible and tragic. My heart goes out to the parents of the young woman and to all her friends and schoolmates. This is an awful thing, what every parent dreads.

I want to be careful and not rush to judgment, though. First and foremost, we don’t know that the vaccination is why she died. The Daily Mail is not exactly the most trusted news source, to start off with. I am taking events reported therein with a large grain of salt.

Second, we don’t know why she died at all. Reports of that have not yet been aired.

Third, complications of any kind from vaccinations are incredibly rare. Gardasil, an HPV vaccination (though different than the one the girl in England received), has been given to over 7 million girls, yet there have been only 20 deaths after getting the shot… and for almost all of them there is no obvious relation between the shot and the fatality except for timing. In other words, they were tragic coincidences.

As one person pointed out on Twitter, you could write an article that says "Man dies after reading the Daily Mail", since I’m sure that will happen many times every day.

As skeptics tirelessly point out: correlation does not mean causation. Because an event happens after a previous event, it doesn’t mean the first caused the second. Is it possible the vaccination resulted in that girl’s death? Yes, it’s possible. However, was it responsible? That we don’t know, and have to wait.

And if it was responsible, we need to find out why. Did she have a rare condition? Was it a bad batch? Was she terribly scared of shots, and her heightened fear exacerbated a heart condition? The point is, we don’t know.

What I do know is that the antivax crowd will go ballistic over this, despite not having enough facts to make a rational conclusion here. But facts are tenuous or malleable things to them, only useful for ignoring or distortion.

In the comments below I expect we’ll hear a lot of the usual misinformation about toxins and autism and mercury and fetal tissue, long-debunked worries over vaccines. Let’s please remember two things here: one is that we don’t know what happened, and the other is that a young girl has died, and we should all be respectful of that.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Humour Posting

Today I wanted to lighten the mood a bit with a couple humerous gems I found. The first is entitled Awareness of Lubrication Controversy Growing. I found this over at teh JREF Forums, and it absolutely hit the nail on the head. See if you can spot the correlation! The other entry is an essay from Daniel Florien. While not exactly humerous, it takes on some of the sillier notions found within creationism that just don't make sense. I figured, they are so silly, that it must have been intended to be humerous, right?

Awareness of Lubrication Controversy Growing

Backed by famous actress, movement picks up momentum

Associated News Service, September 2009

For years, the conventional wisdom had been taken for granted: putting oil into your car will protect it from the effects of friction and maybe even increase its lifespan.

But now, in this era of ever-increasing consumer awareness, more and more drivers are questioning the value and the safety of this practice.

"Everybody's just always assumed they're supposed to lubricate their cars," said Big Tom, owner of Big Tom's Automotive and one of the few experts who's spoken out on this issue. "But is it really that smart to take the most important part of your car, with all its complicated little moving pieces, and fill it with this goopy black sludge? Most people never really gave it any thought. They just did it because they were told they should - because it's what everybody was doing."

So what's the harm? "You just don't know what that stuff is doing to your vehicle," Big Tom adds.

And that's where drivers have started getting concerned. Over the last few years there's been a growing epidemic of Random Airbag Deployment (known as RAD) as more and more cars reportedly have had airbags that, for whatever reason, go off when they're not supposed to. It's dangerous. It causes accidents and injuries. And worst of all, the vehicle suffers from erratic behavior that makes it unable to cope with most normal driving situations - or to engage in meaningful interaction with its driver. Drivers, shocked and devastated to find that their vehicles suffer from RAD, have had no idea where to turn for answers.

More and more, however, a small but vocal group has started theorizing that the effects of RAD are at least in part caused by some aspect of the lubrication process. And this group has gained increasing attention - as well as credibility - by the recent addition of a high-profile celebrity to its ranks.

Bimbo Larue, formerly a porn star, has since become a Hollywood icon, staring in such films as Honk if You Like My Bod, Randy High School Road Trip, and Pull My Finger. But three years ago her world was rocked when her car, a blue 2006 Ford Focus, was diagnosed with RAD.

She recounts her journey on her web site, as well as on any talk show that will have her: "The first time that airbag slammed me in the face like a brick wall... Well at first I was, like, shocked - then I thought, 'You know, there's really something special going on here.'" Based on her experience she came to believe that her car was a "Burnt-Orange Starship of a Higher Plane" and that she was its "Pilot/Aquarial Guide-Presence."

"I just knew that car was meant for great things," Larue said, "that it was just too great for this dimension, you know, too advanced for the narrow little roads it was forced to travel... With all that built up tension inside, it's no wonder it felt the need to just let go and throw out its airbag."

Since then, though, things have changed. "Now I realize that my car's just, like, broken - and it's all because those guys put oil in its engine."

She's since started up a crusade, becoming a leading figure in what's become known as the "Anti-Lubrication Movement." "My goal is to educate as many people as possible about the effects lubrication can have on a car - to tell my story and help others make more informed choices. The oil industry owes it to us to provide a safe way to keep our engines running without filling them with dangerous chemicals that expose our cars to the effects of RAD." And her car? She takes her vehicle in to Big Tom to have the airbag repacked whenever it deploys. She rejects conventional avenues, such as having her car's electrical system diagnosed or reexamining her driving habits - and she says there's no way she's changing her car's oil again. "They've already done enough damage to Mr. Ford Focus," she adds sadly.

Naturally, there's been a backlash against this movement, and against Bimbo Larue.

The Department of Transportation has begun the now well-known "Put oil in your car or your engine will get ruined" ad campaign. And several experts have started to express their disagreement with the movement.

"Good, clean motor oil is essential to the safe operation of a vehicle," says engineer Ed McCallister. "Without it an engine will simply burn out, and the car becomes useless... Really, I'm puzzled that there's even any controversy about this. There's absolutely no plausible reason to believe that airbag misdeployment could be caused by engine lubrication."

"Ridiculous," says Larue. "This one site on Google says that, like, 150 years ago, almost nobody lubricated the engines on their vehicles. And how many airbags misdeployed? None. Now we have airbags firing off left and right - after more vehicles got lubricated. Coincidence? I think not. Anybody who denies the effects of lubrication on RAD is either in denial or is willfully closed-minded to anything that doesn't fit their 'science.'"

But mainstream engineers like McCallister persist in their denial of the oil-RAD connection. "We'd been lubricating vehicles for decades before the airbag was even invented. And even now, the number of airbags that misdeploy falls within the expected range of electrical and mechanical malfunction. There simply is no 'RAD epidemic.'" However, most readers will easily identify McCallister as a mean old poo-poo scientist who never agrees with anything fun or interesting, and who only says boring technical stuff in interviews.

Many other drivers agree, and they're growing angry that they've never been informed of the dangers of lubrication, or the fact that there are alternatives. The government still requires people to lubricate any vehicles they drive on public roads - but in some states they can apply for an exemption based on religious preference or personal fears.

"[The exemption] is a positive first step," says Big Tom, "but there's still much more progress to be made both in laws and in overall public perception. People need to be made aware of their rights. Is it possible that oil might help a vehicle? Some studies say yes - there have been isolated cases where engine seizure has been attributed by some to a lack of motor oil. But there are a lot of different theories out there, and we really need to inform people of both the dangers and the benefits - then let them make the choice."

Tom emphasizes open-mindedness. He adds that the Anti-Lubrication trend is not monolithic, that even within the movement people don't agree on everything. It originally encouraged people to avoid oil altogether. Over time, a few people started demanding the removal of substances like sulfur, detergents, and alkaline additives before they would lubricate. And when a study showed that these measures made no difference in the rate of RAD, some advised spreading out the oil changing schedule - changing the oil only every four to five years, or adding only a quart at a time. "The beautiful thing is, we have our differences, but unlike the 'scientific' community, we can live with them and be open to each others' ideas. That's really what this is about: letting people decide for themselves."

So what about the body of evidence that contradicts the Anti-Lubrication movement? Why would anybody listen to Bimbo Larue when experts with years of mechanical experience disagree with her?

Perhaps she says it best: "I'll always trust my driver's instinct over the so-called experts. I have Mr. Ford Focus back home - he's my years of mechanical experience."

* DISCLAIMER: All people, movements, and organizations named or implied in this article are fictional, except for "the government" and the Department of Transportation. No actions or stances attributed to government agencies in this article are real.

Creationism In the Jaws of the Lion

By Daniel Florien on September 24, 2009
When I was a creationist, I thought life on the earth was “intelligently designed” by God. It was common sense — it looks designed, so it must be. I didn’t realize how quickly the argument degraded into a web of inconsistencies.
Consider a lion. A creationist looks at one and thinks, “What agility! What speed! What skills! This must be created by God.” It’s a common sense explanation, and people believed such things for thousands of years, because they didn’t have a better explanation. The best they could come up with was “magic man done it.”

Killing Machines
But after a while the thoughtful observer notices that these amazing creatures cause an immense amount of death and suffering. Indeed, they are very quick — the better to catch living things and snuff the life out of them. They have beautiful sharp teeth — the better to eat you with, my dear.
If lions were designed, they were designed to be killing machines. Life is based on death. And that realization should make any honest creationist pause.
I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s observation in The Diary of Adam:

[Eve] engages herself in many foolish things; among others; to study out why the animals called lions and tigers live on grass and flowers, when, as she says, the sort of teeth they wear would indicate that they were intended to eat each other. This is foolish, because to do that would be to kill each other, and that would introduce what, as I understand, is called “death”; and death, as I have been told, has not yet entered the Park. Which is a pity, on some accounts.

Once a creationist realizes life is designed to kill, they are faced with a theological problem: what kind of malevolent, sadistic designer would design this?

Hello, Superstition
This is where the common sense stops, and the superstition begins. If you ask most creationists why there is death in the world, they will tell you the ancient story of Adam and Eve. They believe there was no death before the forbidden fruit was munched on. You might find it a satisfying answer, as long as you don’t think about it too much and are the type to believe in stories with talking snakes.
But if you start getting specific, the mythic spell is broken and you’re left with absurdity. Before “The Fall,” how could carnivores have survived on only plants when they were biologically “designed” to eat meat? Why would they have sharp teeth designed to pierce skin if they were supposed to eat grass? And if they didn’t die or eat each other, wouldn’t the earth be overflowing with insects and animals within a few weeks? What did the venus flytrap eat if it couldn’t eat insects? How did mosquitoes suck on plants instead of blood? What about parasites? There are thousands of questions like this, all requiring a creationist to to perform amazing feats of logical gymnastics.
The myth of Adam & Eve was a noble attempt to explain death and suffering, but it is ultimately a theological nightmare and at odds with all our scientific evidence. It is, in other words, completely unconvincing to the modern rationalist.
Occam’s Razor says the simplest theory that answers all the problems is the best choice. Creationism requires jumping through so many theological and scientific hoops that it is anything but simple.

Use Science, Not Myths
The simpler answer, of course, is based on science, not common sense and ancient myths — the explanation that evolution did it without supernatural intervention. Then all the theological problems go away, and they become scientific and philosophical issues to discover or formulate.
So next time you see a mosquito sucking blood and spreading diseases, or a lion catching and devouring prey, be thankful we have a better explanation than that our ancestors ate some fruit.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Today in the News (22 Sep 09)

Infertility And The Battle Of The Sexes: Evolutionary Explanation For Today's Fertility Problems? About 10% of all couples hoping for a baby have fertility problems. Environmentalists say pollution is to blame and psychiatrists point to our stressful lifestyles, but evolutionary biologist Dr. Oren Hasson of Tel Aviv University's Department of Zoology offers a different take. The reproductive organs of men and women are currently involved in an evolutionary arms race, he reports in a new study. And the fight isn't over yet. "The rate of human infertility is higher than we should expect it to be," says Dr. Hasson. "By now, evolution should have improved our reproductive success rate. Something else is going on." Combining empirical evidence with a mathematical model developed in cooperation with Prof. Lewi Stone of the department's Biomathematics Unit, the researchers suggest that the bodies of men and women have become reproductive antagonists, not reproductive partners. The conclusions of this research were published recently in the journal Biological Reviews.

Changing The Course Of Nature: Are Fisheries Directing The Evolution Of Fish Populations? For many of the types of fish we buy in stores or order in restaurants, the chance that an individual dies from fishing is several times higher than dying of natural causes. This may seem obvious to most (they had to get to our table somehow), but what may not be apparent is that the relentless pursuit of consumer-friendly fish product is having a massive impact on fish populations around the world. By repeatedly choosing only the biggest fish, or only those found in certain habitats, the fisheries industry may be permanently altering the genetic composition of fish populations. What are the long-term evolutionary implications of prolonged fishing for the fish that humans and, perhaps more importantly, diverse ecosystems so depend on? A group of concerned international scientists convened at the 2008 American Fisheries Society Annual Meeting to address this issue, and contributions to the symposium are now available online in an August 2009 special issue of Evolutionary Applications.

How To Improve Vaccines To Trigger T Cell As Well As Antibody Response. Killed or disabled viruses have proven safe and effective for vaccinating billions worldwide against smallpox, polio, measles, influenza and many other diseases. But killed or severely "attenuated" vaccines, which are safer than "live" vaccines, have been largely unsuccessful for many non-viral diseases, including illnesses like tuberculosis and malaria. A new study by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and Berkeley-based Aduro BioTech provides clues why killed and severely attenuated vaccines don't always work. It also suggests ways to engineer an attenuated vaccine to make it as potent as a live vaccine but as safe as a killed vaccine.

Alzheimer's Researcher Demonstrates Specific Immune Response To Vaccine. A researcher who is working on a vaccine for Alzheimer's disease (AD) has demonstrated that it is possible to test and measure specific immune responses in mice carrying human genes and to anticipate the immune response in Alzheimer's patients. This continuing research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev could one day lead to specific Alzheimer's vaccines that reduce plaque, neuronal damage and inflammation associated with the disease. Amyloid beta-peptide accumulates in the brain of AD patients where it appears to promote neuronal damage. In the new article published in the Journal of Immunology, BGU researcher Dr. Alon Monsonego determined that introducing A-beta into the brain triggers a natural immune response which can be detected in humans.

National Autism Center Releases Groundbreaking Report on Autism Treatments. The National Autism Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), today released its National Standards Report, the most comprehensive analysis of treatments for children and adolescents with ASD ever published. "This report cuts through the confusing and often conflicting information about the myriad treatments available for ASD," said Susan M. Wilczynski, Ph.D., BCBA, Executive Director of the National Autism Center. "It is designed to serve as a single, authoritative source of guidance for parents, caregivers, educators, and service providers as they make informed treatment decisions."

Accepting Immunity. Anti-vaccine sentiment can pose a considerable threat to public health. In 1998, a research paper that linked the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine with autism led to a virtual stampede away from the childhood vaccine by some British parents. Vaccine rates in Britain and Ireland dropped and measles made a comeback. Many children ended up in the hospital and several died. The research paper was later discredited and further research has conclusively rejected the idea that vaccines caused autism. What's scary is that the vaccine-autism connection took on a life of its own, acquiring the tenacity of an old-fashioned conspiracy theory or urban legend, and many parents still think that childhood vaccinations are best avoided.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Today in the News (10 Sep 09)

Molecular Decay Of Enamel-specific Gene In Toothless Mammals Supports Theory Of Evolution. Biologists at the University of California, Riverside report new evidence for evolutionary change recorded in both the fossil record and the genomes (or genetic blueprints) of living organisms, providing fresh support for Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. The researchers were able to correlate the progressive loss of enamel in the fossil record with a simultaneous molecular decay of a gene, called the enamelin gene, that is involved in enamel formation in mammals. Enamel is the hardest substance in the vertebrate body, and most mammals have teeth capped with it.

Scientists Use MicroRNAs To Track Evolutionary History For First Time. The large group of segmented worms known as annelids, which includes earthworms, leeches and bristle worms, evolved millions of years ago and can be found in every corner of the world. Although annelids are one of the most abundant animal groups on the planet, scientists have struggled to understand how the different species of this biologically diverse group relate to each other in terms of their evolutionary history. Now a team of scientists from Yale University and Dartmouth College has used a groundbreaking method to untangle some of that history.

New Vaccine Shows Promise For COPD Patients At Risk For Pneumonia. A new vaccine against pneumonia may offer better protection from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients than the currently accepted vaccine, according to recent research that will be published in the September 15 issue of the American Journal of the Respiratory and Critical Care Journal, a publication of the American Thoracic Society. Because pneumonia disproportionately affects patients with COPD and frequently causes exacerbations, the Centers for Disease Control currently recommend that all adults with COPD receive the 23-valent pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccination (PPSV23). However, the efficacy of PPSV23 is not well established in the COPD patient population.

Researchers Seek Better Vaccine Procedure To Combat Flu. As manufacturers work furiously to make a vaccine to protect against 2009 influenza A (H1N1) virus, a Rice University bioengineer is trying to improve the process for future flu seasons. The goal is to shorten the time it takes to identify targeted flu strains and manufacture the vaccines for them. In a paper published this summer in the journal Protein Engineering, Design & Selection, Rice researchers described a new method to predict the efficacy of H1N1 vaccines.

Autistic teens master social cues, find friends. Thirteen-year-old Andrea Levy ticked off a mental list of rules to follow when her guest arrived: Greet her at the door. Introduce her to the family. Offer a cold drink. Above all, make her feel welcome by letting her choose what to do. "Do you want to make pizza now or do you want to make it later?" the lanky, raven-haired teen rehearsed in the kitchen, as her mother spread out dough and toppings.

How To Connect With An Autistic Child. For fathers coming home from work and find it impossible to connect with their autistic child, it can typically be the straw that breaks the family's back. Now an autism expert and parent shares tips of how to develop affection in autistic children. Where most children will greet Daddy with a hug or a smile, many autistic children aren’t capable of the normal affectionate interactions that keep a family intact. As Dad walks in, his son is busy lining up his toys or engrossed in the spinning wheels of an overturned toy truck. Dad calls his name over and over in hopes of those bright eyes and wide mouth to come running to him with open arms, but to no avail. He even gets down on his knees in a desperate attempt for some eye contact, but his son turns away and even pushes off his father's touch with disturbing grunts.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Today in the News (5 Sep 09)

First Genetic Link Between Reptile And Human Heart Evolution Found. Scientists at the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease (GICD) have traced the evolution of the four-chambered human heart to a common genetic factor linked to the development of hearts in turtles and other reptiles. The research, published in the September 3 issue of the journal Nature, shows how a specific protein that turns on genes is involved in heart formation in turtles, lizards and humans. "This is the first genetic link to the evolution of two, rather than one, pumping chamber in the heart, which is a key event in the evolution of becoming warm-blooded," said Gladstone investigator Benoit Bruneau, PhD, who led the study. "The gene involved, Tbx5, is also implicated in human congenital heart disease, so our results also bring insight into human disease."

Discovery Of Novel Genes Could Unlock Mystery Of What Makes Us Uniquely Human. Humans and chimpanzees are genetically very similar, yet it is not difficult to identify the many ways in which we are clearly distinct from chimps. In a study published online in Genome Research, scientists have made a crucial discovery of genes that have evolved in humans after branching off from other primates, opening new possibilities for understanding what makes us uniquely human. The prevailing wisdom in the field of molecular evolution was that new genes could only evolve from duplicated or rearranged versions of preexisting genes. It seemed highly unlikely that evolutionary processes could produce a functional protein-coding gene from what was once inactive DNA.

Milk Drinking Started Around 7,500 Years Ago In Central Europe. The ability to digest the milk sugar lactose first evolved in dairy farming communities in central Europe, not in more northern groups as was previously thought, finds a new study led by UCL (University College London) scientists published in the journal PLoS Computational Biology. The genetic change that enabled early Europeans to drink milk without getting sick has been mapped to dairying farmers who lived around 7,500 years ago in a region between the central Balkans and central Europe.

Model Suggests How Life's Code Emerged From Primordial Soup
. In 1952, Stanley Miller filled two flasks with chemicals assumed to be present on the primitive Earth, connected the flasks with rubber tubes and introduced some electrical sparks as a stand-in for lightning. The now famous experiment showed what amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, could easily be generated from this primordial stew. But despite that seminal experiment, neither he nor others were able to take the next step: that of showing how life’s code could come from such humble beginnings. By working with the simplest amino acids and elementary RNAs, physicists led by Rockefeller University’s Albert J. Libchaber, head of the Laboratory of Experimental Condensed Matter Physics, have now generated the first theoretical model that shows how a coded genetic system can emerge from an ancestral broth of simple molecules. “All these molecules have different properties and these properties define their interactions,” says first author Jean Lehmann, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab, whose work appears in the June issue of PLoS One. “What are the constraints that allow these molecules to self-organize into a code? We can play with that.”

Two New Antibodies Found To Cripple HIV: 'Achilles' Heel On Virus For AIDS Vaccine Researchers To Exploit. Researchers at and associated with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), at The Scripps Research Institute, and at the biotechnology companies Theraclone Sciences and Monogram Biosciences have discovered two powerful new antibodies to HIV that reveal what may be an Achilles heel on the virus. They published their work in Science this week. Researchers will now try to exploit the newfound vulnerability on the virus to craft novel approaches to designing an AIDS vaccine. Moreover, the global collaboration and process that led to the discovery of the two new broadly neutralizing antibodies (bNAbs) are likely to produce more such antibodies, which may in turn reveal additional vulnerabilities of HIV, adding still more vitality to the effort to develop a vaccine against AIDS.

Scientists Move Closer To A Safer Anthrax Vaccine. Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have identified two small protein fragments that could be developed into an anthrax vaccine that may cause fewer side effects than the current vaccine. The research is significant because anthrax is considered a major bioterrorism threat. The current anthrax vaccine is intended mainly for members of the armed forces serving in areas considered high risk and for individuals involved in homeland biosecurity.

Children With Autism Use Alternative Keyboard To Communicate With Their Families And Their World. Autism can build a wall of poor communication between those struggling with the condition and their families. While a personal computer can help bridge the divide, the distraction and complexity of a keyboard can be an insurmountable obstacle. Using a unique keyboard with only two "keys" and a novel curriculum, teachers with Project Blue Skies are giving children with autism the ability to both communicate and to explore the online world.

Neuroscientists Find Brain Region Responsible For Our Sense Of Personal Space
. In a finding that sheds new light on the neural mechanisms involved in social behavior, neuroscientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have pinpointed the brain structure responsible for our sense of personal space. The discovery, described in the August 30 issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience, could offer insight into autism and other disorders where social distance is an issue. The structure, the amygdala—a pair of almond-shaped regions located in the medial temporal lobes—was previously known to process strong negative emotions, such as anger and fear, and is considered the seat of emotion in the brain. However, it had never been linked rigorously to real-life human social interaction.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Dateline’s shot at vaccines

On Monday, NBC aired an episode of "Dateline" about the manufactured controversy over vaccines and autism. They had on Andrew Wakefield — the guy who started the whole antivax movement with his widely discredited and embarrassing paper falsely linking them — as well as Brian Deer, the journalist who dug up a lot of Wakefield’s shady history, and Paul Offitt, a doctor who researches vaccines.

I missed the show, dagummit. But a lot of people have been talking about it. I figure you know what my take is on this issue by now, so instead of railing once again against people who’d rather see babies fall ill to preventable diseases than vaccinate them, I’ll link to the others who have commented:

SkepticDad, who felt the show was weak;

Orac, who is predictably and correctly angry about the idea of balance in scientific and health issues;

Consumerist and Psychology Today;

MSNBC has links about the show itself; and

LizDitz, which is a metalink because she has lots of links on her site to others who wrote about the show, too.

I’m glad the mainstream press is noticing, but I wish they would give up their false notion of balance when it comes to matters of reality. People can and should disagree on political matters, but when it comes to testable claims and provably fallacious health hazards like antivaxxers, that sense of balance can lead to an outbreak of illness and even deaths… things which can be prevented by a simple vaccination.