A Challenge to the Genetic Interpretation of Biology

DNA 2014

A proposal for reformulating the foundations of biology, based on the 2nd law of thermodynamics and which is in sharp contrast to the prevailing genetic view, is published today in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface under the title “Genes without prominence: a reappraisal of the foundations of biology” [citation below]. The authors, Arto Annila, Professor of physics at Helsinki University and Keith Baverstock, Docent and former professor at the University of Eastern Finland, assert that the prominent emphasis currently given to the gene in biology is based on a flawed interpretation of experimental genetics and should be replaced by more fundamental considerations of how the cell utilizes energy. There are far-reaching implications, both in research and for the current strategy in many countries to develop personalized medicine based on genome-wide sequencing. Read More →

Synthetic Biology Research on the Rise

dna

The number of private and public entities conducting research in synthetic biology worldwide grew significantly between 2009 and 2013, according to the latest version of an interactive map produced by the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The map is available online at http://www.synbioproject.org/map. Read More →

The Hierarchical Structure of DNA

Introduction
All life on Earth is based on building blocks, known as DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), which exists in the form of a double helix. DNA is a highly elaborate and modular molecule with different levels of hierarchical complexity. In this post, we Read More →

The Possibility of Cetacean Civilizations

Some people have proposed that planets composed mostly of water could serve as cradles for advanced cetacean civilizations. There may be some truth to this. Research proves that cetacean brains have changed considerably throughout the 55 million years that they’ve inhabited the Earth. That’s one of the reasons that they’re so often cited in academic research involving astrobiology. Cetacean species represent the only real alternative evolution to intelligence that’s currently recognized by a majority of scientists.

While it might seem arrogant to say, cetaceans are not currently thought to be as intelligent as humans. Aquatic mammals are brilliant, and they sometimes seem to have psychological processes that resemble those of humans. In fact, they have many of the same psychological issues that humans do. However, they aren’t quite the same here on Earth.

Still, it seems that aquatic mammals could reach an even higher level of development if given enough time and/or the right environment. Proposing worlds where this is true is an interesting thought experiment. Tools and technology have evolved on Earth to be useful to those with hands and feet. This makes it hard to believe that aquatic mammals could construct civilizations resembling those on Earth.

Nevertheless, it’s possible for dolphins and whales to use many tools adapted for them by human handlers. They might very well have developed similar adaptations in their own cultures. No colony of such animals on Earth has ever created such things by themselves, so for now it’s merely an interesting concept. However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for this to occur on a planet where there was little or no threat to survival.

Some research has provided fantastical solutions for problems involving the use of tools by aquatic mammals. For instance, writers have sometimes suggested that machines could be manipulated by some form of telepathy. For now, that sort of thing is completely beyond our comprehension or understanding. Regardless though, the idea that aquatic beings could have developed superior intelligence and capabilities on other planets is a pretty cool one in my opinion. What do you think?

Learn About the Brain [App Review]

  Free App Download

The 3D Brain app is a great introduction to the human brain, and it’s free. Users shouldn’t have too much trouble getting it to run, and it’s compatible with a majority of iOS devices. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (the app developer) has quickly become known for a few different biology apps.

The software allows budding neurologists or neuroscientists to poke around the various structures of the brain. Artists have color coded the different sections, though the labels are also helpful. In fact, colorblind users should still be able to get plenty of use out of the 3D Brain app. While one might expect the program to cover physiological injuries, the presence of mental health information was honestly a pleasant surprise.

Fans of scientific research might be interested in the lineage of the app. Genes to Cognition (G2C) Online provided the knowledge bank that the software runs on, while financing came from the Dana Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation. Anyone who finds that they want to dig deeper than the lessons here can easily cross-reference 3D Brain with another free source. The classic 1918 publication of Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body, for instance, is a great place to look up information after messing with the app for a while.

The Future of Genomic Medicine

Medicine has always focused on the treatment of diseases. Scientists have talked about changing this since the Human Genome Project began. Researchers have found that they may be able to predict whether or not a patient will develop a disease based on their genetic map although currently, this is a long way off.

Theoretically, doctors could predict and prevent various diseases before they occur in the future. Genetics are already used in regular medical science and the field of genomic medicine is growing at an unparalleled pace. Enthusiastic commentators have compared it to the development of antibiotics.

Nevertheless, controversy rears its ugly head at every turn. Genomic medicine opens an entire book of ethical quandaries. Technological singularities should cause the human race to come together. In theory, technology is causing the democratization of all areas of our lives.

However, genomic medicine could cause mass discrimination as well. Large groups have been discriminated against because of their political affiliation, race, gender or creed…so why not genetics as well? Discrimination is supposed to be a thing of the past however genomic medicine could cause people to be marginalized based on their genetics.

This is clearly a step backwards. As genomic medicine starts to treat diseases that don’t yet exist, doctors need to exercise caution and restraint in their work. It’s sometimes said that technology is morally neutral. However, what doctors do with technology can have serious moral implications in the years ahead as well.

Image Credit: U.S. Department of Energy Human Genome Program

Learning From Other Species

A long-held assumption confirmed

Researchers at the SIB Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics and the EMBL-European Bioinformatics Institute have confirmed the long-held belief that studying the genes we share with other animals is useful. The study (cited below), published today in the open access journal PLoS Computational Biology, shows how bioinformatics makes it possible to test the fundamental principles on which life science is built. Read More →