Biology and Biotech

At this time of year, we look forward to feasting to celebrate the holidays. But, as Earth's population grows, feasts may become more scarce.Currently there are more than 7 billion people on the planet; according to some authorities, the increase in population between 1900 and 2000 was greater than that in all of human history. Although these same folks note that the rate of population growth has been slowing, we can still expect that by the year 2100, there will be over 11 billion people hanging around this planet. So, how are we going to feed them all? No, organic agriculture isn't going to do it. Genetic engineering will be needed to help increase food production. And scientists are working constantly to find new and...

Pheromones have long been credited (or blamed) for our behavioral choices, most notably our choice of sexual partners. The idea that we could base such a seemingly personal choice on a unconscious chemical signal is fascinating but, is it real? 

The answer is probably not - despite it being a widely held belief that humans make pheromones that affect our behavior - there is no scientific evidence to support that this is the case. But, it is still a question that garners much attention. In fact, Science magazine's special 125th anniversary issue, included the question “Do pheromones influence human behavior?” on the list of 100 of the most interesting questions still...

By Simon Woods, Newcastle University

A dying 14-year-old child recently won the right to be cryogenically frozen after her death following a UK court battle. In a letter to the judge, the child wrote:

I think being cryo-preserved gives me a chance to be cured and woken up, even in hundreds of years’ time. I don’t want to be buried underground … I want to live and live longer and I think that in the future they might find a cure for my cancer and wake me up.


We were recently contacted by a concerned group of pro-science scholars who wants to counter the unscientific arguments made by anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva. We made this handy flyer for them. Then, we realized that this could be useful for anybody who needs to confront the anti-GMOers in their lives.

So, here it is. Feel free to print and distribute as widely as possible! 

Insect repellent, screens on windows, wearing long sleeves -- there is a limit to the precautions that we can take to protect ourselves from viruses that are spread by mosquitoes.

Even by taking all of the above steps, there is no way to have guaranteed protection from mosquito bites.

But, there is one idea that would put an end to all other methods of mosquito repellents.... what if there were no mosquitoes?

That is the idea behind the work of the company Oxitec. They have engineered a mosquito that leads to a decrease in the Aedes aegypti mosquito population. Here is how it works. The company has created a strain of mosquito that is "self limiting" meaning that they have a "death gene" added...

The concept of viruses causing cancer is not new. In fact, it has been more than 100 years since Francis Peyton Rous, working at Rockefeller University, uncovered the first pathogen-caused cancer. Rous discovered that a virus, now called the Rous sarcoma virus caused tumors in chickens. He proved the causation by extracting material from the tumors, and then using to it infect other chicken, which subsequently developed the same tumors. He earned the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1965 for this work. 

Since then, multiple pathogens, almost all of which are viruses, have been shown to cause a variety of cancers. Here are some:

  • Hepatitis B**- liver
  • Hepatitis C- liver
  • Human papilloma virus**- cervix, anus, penis, mouth, throat
  • HIV (indirectly)...

Gene drives are the hottest new technology in molecular biology. If you need a refresher, we wrote a description last week of what a gene drive is and how it works.

And, although gene drives are opening up boundless possibilities in the world of genetic manipulation, real concerns lie in the unknown consequences of using them. And, that is why gene drives are making people so nervous. 

Although one can imagine countless different ways that gene drives could be used, the top reasons that are at the forefront of this technology moving from the bench into our world are:

1. Invasive species could be eradicated. Invasive species can take over an area, killing native species...

Classifying species is a notoriously sticky problem in biology. As a very broad rule, organisms can be classified as belonging to a distinct species if they can successfully mate with each other to produce offspring that can also successfully mate.

But this rule completely falls apart for microbes. Bacteria reproduce asexually; they simply divide into two "daughter" cells. They also promiscuously swap DNA with other bacterial species, such as antibiotic resistance genes. So, bacteria are classified mostly based upon similarity in DNA sequences.

All of this fuss over bacterial taxonomy may seem to be merely an academic exercise, but understanding differences between the "core genome" and "accessory genes" is important for both medical microbiology as well as synthetic...

It is rare that a scientist discovers a completely novel technique or method. When it happens, and that technique is useful, it is revolutionary. In recent history, techniques such as PCR, large scale DNA sequencing and CRISPR-Cas9 fall into this category. As I wrote about recently, CRISPR-Cas9 is quickly becoming a household word (and will soon be a Hollywood star.)

More commonly than designing techniques from scratch, scientists employ previously developed techniques...

Why America's supposed newspaper of record has become a voice for anti-biotechnology food activists remains a profound mystery. The only plausible explanation is that this is calculated; the New York Times must be tailoring its reportage to its customers, who consist mostly of well-to-do, organic-food-eating elites. Evidence plays little to no role in the paper's coverage of controversial scientific issues.

Michael Pollan serves as a case-in-point. In one of his most recent articles, he bashes modern agriculture and casually libels pro-biotech organizations (like ACSH) with whom he disagrees. Few journalists and even fewer...