A Fuzzy Infiltrator – Improving Penguin Studies

America has a seemingly undying love of penguins, and for understandable reasons. Their babies are awkwardly waddling adorable fluffballs; their adults are graceful swimmers of freezing seas; their cartoons are endearingly spunky. Zoos and aquariums across the country offer penguin experiences, letting fans get up close and personal with the waterfowl. As penguin habitats become increasingly threatened by global climate change, these warm and fuzzy feelings help encourage conservation efforts and build support for scientists who study the animals.

Yet for wild penguins, a human encounter is often a source of discomfort rather than delight. The presence of people increases stress in penguins, raising their heart rates and changing hormone levels in ways that can harm reproduction. This puts conservation scientists in a bind: they need to work closely with penguins to obtain good data, but their very presence can harm the birds they want to study. Yvon Le Maho, a French Antarctic scientist, recently published a study in Nature Methods that offers a clever workaround for this conundrum: remote-controlled penguins.

Courtesy of Popular Science

Le Maho and his colleagues reasoned that penguins would be far less stressed by an intruder if it looked more like one of their own kind. To this end, the scientists designed a remote-controlled car topped by a stuffed animal version of a penguin chick. Getting the rover right was a matter of trial and error; the researchers tried five different versions of their device, including a fiberglass version that seemed to disturb the birds even more than undisguised humans did.

Once the team developed a suitable penguin “spy,” they compared the responses of penguins to approaches by humans and the car. By measuring penguin heart rates and observing their behavior, Le Maho and collaborators determined that the birds were four times less stressed when the car made its way into their territory. The disguised rover could join an emperor penguin creche, a tightly packed circle of penguin chicks, without arousing suspicion. Adult emperor penguins even began to sing at the contraption, leading Le Maho to comment, “they were very disappointed when there was no answer. Next time we will have a rover playing songs.”

Although the fuzzy little car seems frivolous, its built-in radio-frequency identification (RFID) reader allows it to identify tagged penguins without disturbing them, which is very important for studying the community structure and distribution of the birds. Similar devices could be designed to zip past other wary wild species; the scientists note that their penguin car also went unmolested by elephant seals, which in their words “generally react strongly when humans approach their tails.” If researchers add cameras and microphones, the car might someday get a bird’s-eye view of penguin life. Of course, in the case of these flightless waterfowl, that perspective will be stuck to the ground.

Book Review – The Violinist’s Thumb

If Nicollo Paganini, the titular musician of Sam Kean‘s “The Violinist’s Thumb,” had lived in the 1960s rather than the 1800s, the book may well have been named “Sex, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll.” According to period reports, the 19th century virtuoso was a dervish of womanizing, opium abuse, and brilliant concerts, haunted by recurring health problems that ended his career well before old age. This combination was often attributed at the time to Paganini’s purported pact with the devil, but if he had lived even closer to the present, it may have been attributed to a more scientific cause. Modern doctors have retroactively conjectured that the violinist suffered from Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder of the body’s connective tissue that would have given Paganini both his legendary flexibility and infamous ill health.

“The Violinist’s Thumb” by Sam Kean. Courtesy of Amazon.

Kean recognizes the timeless interest of Paganini’s story and makes it a key example of the book’s major theme: DNA influences our bodies, brains, and behavior in powerful and unexpected ways. From the implications of Neanderthal interbreeding for human immunity to the role of parasite genes in the addictions of animal hoarders, the author casts a wide net over the weird world of genetics. Equally comfortable with the scientific and human sides of his subjects, Kean’s writing is packed with juicily evocative (and humorous) details that illuminate larger biological concepts.

This penchant for anecdotes makes “The Violinist’s Thumb” often read like a collection of short biographies, very accessible and a bit eclectic. In perhaps the book’s best chapter, Kean weaves the personal lives of Thomas Hunt Morgan and three of his lab assistants around a solid primer on the discovery of chromosomal behavior. The details of Morgan’s relationships with his assistants (such as the time he bailed Calvin Bridges out of a sticky situation with a confidence woman) are fascinating in their own right, but Kean ensures that they also illustrate the progress of scientific discovery; in this case, Morgan’s American familiarity with his underlings meant he was more willing to listen to their good ideas than were many European investigators.

Although each individual story is told with great aplomb, Kean’s scattershot approach does leave the book feeling somewhat weak in terms of overall structure. At times, “The Violinist’s Thumb” can feel like a popular science textbook, covering a wide range of topics in genetics without fully uniting them in the overarching narrative of DNA’s human impacts. But more often than not, the engaging nature of the examples led me to forgive the author for his strong focus on particulars.

The book’s witty style makes it a quick and enjoyable read, stuffed with specifics that impress the reader and beg to be shared among friends. The science is solid throughout, but Kean’s discussions of its personal implications are what truly stand out. As the author concludes in his last chapter, “the most profound changes that genetic science brings about likely won’t be instant diagnoses or medicinal panaceas but mental and spiritual enrichment—a more expansive sense of who we humans are, existentially, and how we fit with other life on earth.”


A Shot in the Dark – The Perils of Sharing Vaccine Science

One of Wikipedia’s most interesting articles is simply titled “List of common misconceptions.” The contents range from the invention of baseball (Alexander Cartwright, not Abner Doubleday, first codified the rules) to elephant graveyards (which do not actually exist), covering the kind of “folk knowledge” that might be erroneously relayed in a grade-school classroom. Most of these myths are harmless misunderstandings, but the fact that the article exists at all points to the frustrating difficulty of correcting false information on a societal scale.

Some misconceptions, however, have effects beyond making people sound foolish at cocktail parties. The belief that vaccinations cause autism, thoroughly debunked by the best available science, has led to a decrease in rates of vaccination against preventable diseases in many areas across the United States. This reduction in immunity among the population in turn leads to outbreaks of diseases long thought controlled, such as whooping cough, which killed 10 Californian children in a 2010 outbreak linked to clusters of unvaccinated individuals. Public health officials strive to combat the misconceptions spread by “anti-vaxxers” such as Jenny McCarthy, but too often their efforts are unsuccessful. A new study published in the journal “Pediatrics” now suggests that these messages may be worse than useless: exposing parents to scientifically based vaccine information can reduce their intent to vaccinate their children.

Surprisingly, this political cartoon may actually be understating the danger of antivaccination beliefs. Courtesy of ixdaily.

Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, and his colleagues wanted to examine the effectiveness of different strategies for promoting vaccines. The researchers interviewed over 1,700 American parents via the Internet to determine their initial attitudes towards vaccines, then exposed them to one of four pro-vaccine messages. The “autism correction” message presented the scientific consensus on the safety of vaccination, relying heavily on statistics and links to journal articles. The “disease risks” message instead focused on the possible dangers of vaccine-preventable illnesses, such as brain damage, deafness, and death. The last two messages, “disease narrative” and “disease images,” employed more personal information, respectively presenting a mother’s harrowing story about her unvaccinated infant and photographs of children riddled with the worst symptoms of measles, mumps, and rubella. Finally, the parents were interviewed again to determine any changes in their beliefs.

Depressingly, none of the messages achieved their intended purpose of increasing vaccination intent. Presenting the “disease risks” message had no effect, while the “disease narrative” and “disease images” methods increased the belief in serious side effects. The “autism correction” approach was partially successful, as parents exposed to this message were less likely to believe in the vaccine-autism link than before reading the information. However, this same group of parents also became less likely to actually vaccinate. Although this effect was due almost entirely to changes in attitudes among parents who had previously reported a distrust of vaccines, the researchers were surprised that factual information could cause a “backlash” response.

In a recent interview with The Communications Network, Nyhan offered a possible explanation for these undesirable results. “It’s uncomfortable for [parents] to be told that this attitude or belief they have is wrong or perhaps based on incorrect evidence, and so they’re going to try to butcher that belief by saying, ‘Oh, why do I not like vaccines? Well, maybe it’s not the autism thing, but I have some other concern.’ In the process of bringing those ideas to mind, they may end up coming to believe more strongly in these concerns or objections they have to vaccines than they otherwise would have.”

Nyhan’s other work has revealed possibilities for countering the backlash effect. As reported by Shankar Vedantam, social science correspondent for National Public Radio, presenting factual information that counters a person’s deeply held beliefs may damage that person’s self-esteem. Boosting the self-esteem of parents before offering vaccine information “might help them take in the new information because they don’t feel as threatened as they might have been otherwise.” While this strategy hasn’t been tested for scientific information, it represents a promising new alternative to previous (and counterproductive) messages. The research suggests that public health officials must take a different approach if they hope to protect children from well-intentioned misconceptions.


Book Review – The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

If I’ve been posting a lot of book reviews lately, it’s due to the long, lazy days of summer and the fortuitous proximity of the Campbell County Public Library. But I’ve been trying to keep my reading list on the somewhat enlightening side, and to that end, I recently picked up “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” by famed (and infamous) biologist Richard Dawkins. Evolution is far from new territory for Dawkins and his books, but as he explains, in none of his previous works has he attempted to provide a comprehensive overview of the support behind the central tenet of biological science.

“The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” by Richard Dawkins. Courtesy of Amazon.

And in this respect, Dawkins largely succeeds. Starting much like Darwin and “On the Origin of Species” in his reliance on artificial selection in domesticated plants and animals, the author segues through selection by nonhuman animals (such as that of insects for floral nectar production) before explaining the impersonal forces of natural selection proper. He addresses geological dating in a particularly lucid overview of the different radioactive “clocks,” gives examples of rapid evolution, and challenges the fallacy of the “missing link.” Perhaps the best chapter in the book uses embryogenesis to demonstrate how change on the smallest biological level can propagate upward, causing drastic alterations in an organism’s form upon which natural selection can operate.

When Dawkins becomes engrossed in the details of a scientific concept, as in a pages-long description of the Lenski Long-term Evolution Experiment, his writing is powerful and convincing. Yet he seems not to recognize this strength, and it is here that the book begins to falter. Too often he chooses to gloss over the finer points of a given example, waving away the complexities with a dismissive and superior tone. “For reasons that need not concern us here” and “I won’t pursue the matter further” are common phrases throughout; in other places, he chooses to make amusing digressions or employ footnotes instead of continuing the thrust of the argument in the main text. One gets the sense that his celebrity as one of the “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism caused the editors of the book to take a lighter hand, and the work suffers for it.

Perhaps most importantly, Dawkins takes an openly combative stance towards those whom the book purports to reach: advocates of creationism and intelligent design, whom he designates as “history deniers.” For example, he devotes an embarrassingly large amount of space to a transcript of an interview he conducted with a creationist over fossils of humanity’s ancestors, taking a perverse glee in the inability of his subject to look at the evidence as it stood. But the book itself is about that evidence, and presumably about giving those not yet convinced of the beauty and truth of evolution another perspective. A calmer, friendlier tone may not attract the media coverage Dawkins seems to crave, but it might go a long way toward winning over the other side.

From the Vaults: A Wooly Issue – Deextinction of Mammoths

Editor’s note: Thanks to you, the readership of Sword of Science has significantly increased from my first posts nearly a year ago. I recently started volunteering at the Cincinnati Museum Center, and in honor of their emblematic Ice Age Trail, I’m reposting one of my earliest pieces, about efforts to bring back extinct species such as the woolly mammoth.

A little less than a week ago, a team of Russian scientists announced a startling find in the frozen wastes of Siberia: the complete carcass of a woolly mammoth, a relic from the most recent ice age over 10,000 years old. Although mammoths have been unearthed from the permafrost before, they are rarely recovered in such pristine condition, and never have they been found with liquid blood. Of course, there are only two words that come to mind when the blood of extinct species is mentioned: “Jurassic Park.”  The central conceit of Michael Crichton’s novel is that dinosaur DNA from blood trapped in amber-preserved mosquitoes is used to resurrect the Mesozoic beasts, with dire consequences.

While it’s unlikely that a herd of woolly mammoths will go rampaging through an ice age theme park anytime soon, it is becoming increasingly feasible that the genetic resources necessary to clone a mammoth will be developed. Blood itself is actually a rather poor medium from which to extract ancient DNA: red blood cells, or erythrocytes, do not contain any genetic information, and white blood cells, or leukocytes, are fairly fragile. In the words of Stephen Schuster, the biologist behind the sequencing of the mammoth genome, the genetic material in the mammoth blood is probably “as shattered as if you took a mirror and threw it on the floor.” Research is already in progress to clone a mammoth from bone marrow cells, which are more resilient and have better-preserved DNA.

A frozen baby mammoth, courtesy of National Geographic

Considerable amounts of effort are being invested in this project, but why (or is it even) a worthwhile investment? The “wow” factor of bringing back an extinct species is certainly a large part of the rationale. The sense of reaching back into the past, of letting people see something that hasn’t been seen for millenia, excites the imagination and draws attention to science in general. Conservation biology has a similar concept in the “flagship species,” a charismatic large animal that serves as a focus for  the ecological concerns of the general public. The plight of the manatee, for example, draws in attention and funding for the preservation of the Florida Everglades. Bringing back a mammoth would encourage a new generation of young scientists to explore the fields of molecular biology and paleontology. This kind of project may also put a more favorable public light on genetic technology, which has recently received a lot of negative attention due to the fight over GMO labeling and a recent Supreme Court case involving the agribusiness giant Monsanto.

Some scientists, like Jose Folch, see a bioethical imperative for work on de-extinction. Folch, whose team successfully cloned the extinct Pyrenean ibex (albeit one with a lifespan of seven minutes), believes that his work may serve as a basis “for future cloning-based conservation.” There is a sort of inherent justice in the thought that species wiped out by direct human impacts, like the passenger pigeon and the Steller’s sea cow, might one day be restored by direct human effort. However, there are many steps remaining between cloning an individual and reestablishing a population of an extinct species. Clones are genetically identical, and therefore rather vulnerable to disease or ecological stresses. Evolution and migration have shaped ecosystems in the absence of extinct species, even over the short timespans some have been extinct, and it is likely that not all species would fit comfortably back into their niches. A less obvious danger is the thought that with this sort of technology, the importance of traditional conservation is somehow reduced. Why bother with protecting existing species if we can call them back at will? Yet as scientists have continually learned, all species are connected; the loss of one obvious organism could have unforeseen effects on countless others, and it’s best to conserve as many as possible while we try to understand the web of life.

News Flash – Bill Nye’s Great Creation Debate

PETERSBURG, Ky. — Not since the Scopes Monkey Trial have defenders of evolution and creationism had such a public forum as will occur tonight between popular science personality Bill “The Science Guy” Nye and Answers in Genesis founder Ken Ham. Starting at 7 p.m. ET, the two will share the stage of Legacy Hall at the Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky for a debate on the topic of “Is Creation a Viable Model of Origins?” Between the 900-seat capacity of the hall and the live stream of the event sponsored by Answers in Genesis, more than a million people are likely to hear the two’s arguments.

The Mixup in the Museum! Courtesy of Roadtrippers.

Nye made waves in 2012 with a YouTube video in support of evolution, in which he told proponents of creationism, “if you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it because we need them.” A third of American adults do deny evolution, according to the Pew Research Center, and are in agreement with the statement that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time;” roughly 60 percent agree with an evolutionary perspective.

Among white evangelical Protestants like Ham, however, these percentages are reversed, with 64 percent supporting creationism. Ham is the leading proponent of “Young Earth Creationism,” which interprets the Bible as giving the planet an age of approximately 6,000 years. In an interview with USA Today before the debate, Ham stressed that “[w]e certainly believe students should be allowed to critically analyze evolution. You can’t really believe both [creation and evolution] because it’s not consistent with the Bible. You can’t add millions of years to what the Bible teaches.”

Some science advocates have expressed reservations about Nye accepting the invitation to the event. John Rosenau, director of the National Center for Science Education think-tank, said his general policy was to discourage this sort of debate. “The biggest thing is that a debate on stage is not how science is decided. It’s entertainment, it’s theater,” rather than a careful series of observations and experiments. Others believe that the adversarial nature of the encounter further intensifies an unnecessary conflict between science and religion. Scientists such as the astrophysicist Joel Primack emphasize that the Bible’s answers to “why” questions are in no way compromised by evolution’s answers to questions of “how.”

Again, tonight’s debate will begin at 7 p.m ET and last approximately two and half hours. It will be streamed live and will also be available on YouTube following its conclusion.

Follow-Up: Genetic Disease Testing and the FDA

In June, I published a post on genetic disease testing after the highly publicized double mastectomy of actress Angelina Jolie, who had the procedure after a genetic screen showed she possessed a version of the BRCA1 gene associated with breast cancer. Consumer genomics has since garnered attention from the US Food and Drug Administration, which claims that manufacturers of home genetics kits are effectively selling unlicensed medical devices. The FDA’s scrutiny of genetic testing recently escalated in a strongly worded letter sent to Anne Wojcicki, the CEO of 23andMe, the largest American manufacturer of these tests.

Anne Wojcicki, CEO of 23andMe, courtesy of 23andMe.

In this warning letter, FDA director of in vitro diagnostics and radiological health Alberto Gutierrez ordered 23andMe to “immediately discontinue marketing the PGS [Personal Genome Service, the company’s genetic testing kit] until such time as it receives FDA marketing authorization for the device.” Although the company has previously attempted to register some of the tests included in the PGS under 510(k) applications, which bypass costly clinical trials by proving that a test is substantially the same as one already on the market, the FDA claims that these efforts are insufficient for the long list of conditions assayed by the kit

The letter focuses on the risks of false positives and negatives, using the same BRCA test that Jolie took as an example. “[I]f the BRCA-related risk assessment for breast or ovarian cancer reports a false positive, it could lead a patient to undergo prophylactic surgery, chemoprevention, intensive screening, or other morbidity-inducing actions, while a false negative could result in a failure to recognize an actual risk that may exist.”

Wojcicki has apologized for her company’s failures to comply with the FDA’s past information requests, saying that “We stand behind the data that we return to customers—but we recognize that the FDA needs to be convinced of the quality of our data as well.” However, the company has issued no comment on whether it will discontinue sales of its kits while it prepares regulatory submissions to the government.

UPDATE: 23andMe has announced that while it will continue to sell its kits, it will restrict the results of the tests it releases to its customers to ancestry and raw data. None of the company’s previous health-related claims will be included.