Science for the People: Biohacking

sftp-square-fistonly-whitebgThis week Science for the People is talking about do-it-yourself biology, and the community labs that are changing the biotech landscape from the grassroots up. We’ll discuss open-source genetics and biohacking spaces with Will Canine of Brooklyn lab Genspace, and Tito Jankowski, co-founder of Silicon Valley’s BioCurious. We’ll also talk to transdisciplinary artist and educator Heather Dewey-Hagborg about her art projects exploring our relationship with genetics and privacy.

*Josh provides research & social media help to Science for the People and is, therefore, completely biased.

Our hunt for human-specific genes won’t explain why chimps can’t do algebra

It sounds like exciting science: the hunt for the genes that make us human. But are we learning all that much about our biology by tracking down those parts of our genome that are unique to us?

In my Pacific Standard column this week, I argue no – at least not yet. The search for human specific genes, or those parts of our genome that show signs of rapid evolution, called “human accelerated regions” hasn’t really yielded much insight into what makes us different from other species, particularly our closest relatives. For the most part, we’ve discovered genes and regulatory elements that are somehow associated with brain function, but we can’t say much more than that. Continue reading “Our hunt for human-specific genes won’t explain why chimps can’t do algebra”

Some gene conceptions and misconceptions

Any geneticist who has discussed genes with friends and family knows that there are a lot of misconceptions floating around out there. This is understandable – genetics involves some tricky concepts, and sometimes we use confusing linguistic shortcuts to talk about genes without using jargon. Sometimes scientists get confused as well (although that’s a topic for another day).

One of the big misconceptions is that there are genes ‘for’ specific traits — you’ll often hear that we have a gene ‘for’ X, X being some phenotypic trait. (If X is not a trait, but some sort of molecular player, than the language is correct, e.g. we do in fact have a gene — actually multiple genes — for the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase.) This language is often rightly condemned as being misleading, because there is no one-to-one correspondence between genes and traits: traits are the product of multiple genes, while any given gene will contribute to multiple traits.

But you only need to tweak the ‘gene for X‘ language slightly to get at a correct and important concept in genetics: variation in a single gene is often responsible for important differences in X (in a particular population). This is usually what we mean when we say there is a ‘gene for X‘, but this clarification is rarely noted when people knock the phrase. Continue reading “Some gene conceptions and misconceptions”

“James Watson deserves to be shunned”

The phrase “must read” gets used too lightly. In this case, however, I must insist you read Adam Rutherford in The Guardian. Rutherford summarizes why we should respect the scientific discovery of James Watson, why we should shun the failed humanity of the man, and why this is far from a unique problem in the history of science.

Here’s our challenge: celebrate science when it is great, and scientists when they deserve it. And when they turn out to be awful bigots, let’s be honest about that too. It turns out that just like DNA, people are messy, complex and sometimes full of hideous errors. – Adam Rutherford

HT: Alok Jha

Science for the People: Troublesome Inheritance

sftpThis week, Science for the People is looking at the intersection of race, history and genetics in science writer Nicholas Wade’s 2014 book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. DNA researcher Jennifer Raff and science journalist David Dobbs share their critiques of the claim that differences between genetically distinct “races” are responsible for global divergence in cultural and political structures. Blogger Scicurious walks us through the (delicious) basics of the scientific method with Cookie Science.

*Josh provides research help to Science for the People and is, therefore, completely biased.