Bacon Double Down

There was an interesting pair of articles in io9 last week, the report of double muscled pigs being bred by researchers in South Korea and China, and differences between how American scientists and the American public view science related issues.

Seeing these two articles so closely together was interesting.

The first thing that jumps out is that in America, there is a 51 percentage point gap between scientists and the public regarding whether or not it’s safe to eat genetically modified foods. You can play about with the day at the Pew Research Centre’s site where they have a fun inforgraphic to demonstrate how this changes with gender, age, science knowledge, etc. The story of the double muscled pigs then should evoke some concern in these people, no? Scientists meddling where they don’t belong?

But of course double muscling is old news – in fact we understand it pretty well. It’s a genetic mutation that inhibits the production or uptake of myostatin, a muscle growth regulator. So these animals have big muscles. There are a few breeds of cattle that have been selected for this mutation, such as the Piedmontese breed, and it’s a mutation that occurs in some whippets too. Deliberately adding the gene in a line of pigs is cool, but we also have pigs that glow in the dark.

The concern about double muscled pigs might come from the idea that humans shouldn’t genetically manipulate animals, but seeing as we’ve been doing it for a long time, I think it’s more the tool that some people object to. This innate distrust of the mad scientist.

But what really interested me in the double muscling article was the assertion that this development might help feed the world. I agree that it could, but not because we’re suddenly doubling down on our bacon production. After all, the world’s beef production isn’t purely carried by the Piedmontese and Belgian Blue (although they are important breeds). But the technical capacity we have to engineer our animals, with appropriate ethical supervision, really will help us in one of the theatres of world food production.

We just need to overcome that 50% point difference between us and the public to help us get there.

And Baby Makes Three

The UK looks like it will be the first country to allow babies with the genetic material of three parents, with our MPs voting for the bill on Tuesday.

Now in the UK we also have a House of Lords, who also must approve the bill at a later date, and there’s no guarantee they will, but given the large majority of parliament members (382 to 182) it’s likely they will. It also has to be approved by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, a UK governmental organisation.

On Tuesday morning I was listening to Morning Call on Radio Scotland. It’s a fairly simple show, where people call in to give their opinions on any given subject. That, combined with the online reaction today, has had me and my colleagues thumping our foreheads against the desks repeatedly.

Buzzfeed has a great “Six Things You Should Know...” list that I won’t repeat here, but there are a few things we have to discuss …


Three Parent Babies is a Bit of a Stretch

Yes, this is a classic case of a catchy headline. The mitochondria, which you probably remember from high school biology, is essentially the battery of a cell. Long, long ago in our evolutionary past, back when we were simple collections of cells, mitochondria were simple single cell organisms capable of doing things our little cells weren’t. Namely powering things. So they were captured and made a part of larger cellular organism that was us. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But it’s because of this that mitochondria have slightly interesting and unique DNA, a separate part of our genome that codes for our mitochondria. Some organisms have managed to get rid of all of the mitochondrial DNA, and others have got weird mutations in there, we’ll come back to that later.

The important thing to note is that ‘three parent baby’ simply takes the mitochondrial DNA from one genome, and the rest of the DNA in the traditional method (for a given definition of ‘traditional’, in a test tube, under the stars, wearing leather, wearing lace . . . ) comes from the two parents.


A Gateway To Eugenics

One of the strangest comments I’ve heard in relation to this news is that it means we’re a step closer to eugenics. This is, in some ways, deeply insulting to the families of those who are suffering from mitochondrial diseases. To want to be free of disease does not equate to eugenics.

In humans, mitochondria are inherited directly from the mother. You’ve heard of Mitochondrial Eve? The reason we have her is because our mitochondrial DNA doesn’t get recombined and altered in the same way as the rest of our genome. Like the Y chromosome, it is an excellent way of doing forensic genetics. Both of them remain greatly unchanged throughout our evolutionary history, and we can track back to a conceptual Mitochondrial Eve and Y Chromosome Adam. However, I’ll point out that these aren’t real people. They’re simply the earliest ancestor we’re all related to – which changes as our population changes over time.

But it’s this phenomenon, the conservation of this DNA, that allows us to swap them out in this fashion. The DNA inside the mitochondria is so useless to the rest of the body they can be exchanged very easily. So you see, we’re still many, many years and innovations away from selecting the genes we want and engineering our babies. This procedure is feasible, and safe, because mitochondrial DNA is so protected, and usually inconsequential in a genome.


Why Do We Need It?

Because mitochondrial diseases are horrific things. The mitochondrial DNA is special, yes, separate from the rest of the DNA, yes. But it also mutates, as all DNA does, and it doesn’t have much of a way of repairing itself or realising that its damaging its body. Symptoms include Multiple Sclerosis style diseases, loss of eyesight, loss of hearing, dementia, neurological problems, an inability to exercise, diabetes, poor growth, heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders . . . and each one of these things are a SYMPTOM of the disease, not the disease itself.

We can eradicate this disease, easily, while maintaining a person’s right to reproduce. If you fear that because you’ve seen one too many B movies about Frankenstein . . . you just show me how much work I have to do.



Finally I have to say something about the “Science has gone too far” style comments, and “humans have evolved to their current state, we shouldn’t meddle”. In so many cases, comics can communicate more about science than any of my blogs. To those people I say . . .

Thag no! You go too far! 

Could Deoxyribonucleic Acid Be in Your Food?

My colleague Arjan, who’s much wittier than I am, suggested the label go something like this:

Product may contain trace amounts of DNA; DNA has been linked with cancers and other disorders; There is a high probability pregnant mothers will pass DNA to their unborn children

It’s almost too good to be true, and certainly a gift for any science communication blogger out there . . . can it be?

80% of Americans support mandatory labelling of food containing DNA. 

My colleague Arjan, who’s much wittier than I am, suggested the label go something like this:

Product may contain trace amounts of DNA; DNA has been linked with cancers and other disorders; There is a high probability pregnant mothers will pass DNA to their unborn children

The Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University has a project called the Food Demand Survey which surveys Americans regarding their attitudes and sentiments to their food. Before we’re even going to address this claim about DNA, let’s think about the methodology.

The information comes from Volume 2: Issue 9 (January 2015) of their self-published online reports. So the first point to make is that this methodology is not peer reviewed. However we can glean some of the methodology from Lusk and Murray (2014). The survey has been running since May 2013 and goes out each month online to survey at least 1000 people, but no word on what their response rate is like. Each month they add an ad hoc question which doesn’t follow the basic survey layout and the DNA result comes out of the question.

So the question this month was:

Do you support or oppose the following government policies?

  • A tax on sugared sodas (39% Supported)
  • A ban on the sale of marijuana (47% Supported)
  • A ban on the sale of food products made with transfat (56% Supported)
  • A ban on the sale of raw, unpasteurised milk (59% Supported)
  • Calorie limits for school lunches (64% Supported)
  • Mandatory calorie labels on restaurant menus (69% Supported)
  • Mandatory labels on foods containing DNA (80% Supported)
  • Mandatory labels on food produced with genetic engineering (82% Supported)
  • A requirement that school lunches contain two servings of fruit and veg (84% Supported)
  • Mandatory country of origin labels for meat (87% Supported)

Really, without further methodology questions all we can really say is more of these particular Americans (a number we know is less than 1000) want mandatory labelling on foods containing DNA than a tax on sugared sodas. Without sample size data we have no idea whether that difference is significant or not (although if they surveyed 100 people, and 80% want DNA labelling, then that is significantly different from a random 50:50 distribution).

But here’s the thing: regardless of methodology, the idea that there are any people in a survey that aims to be informative who are concerned about DNA being in their food is very concerning indeed.

In the title of this post, I used an old journalistic trick by using DNA’s more formal name which is long, hard to pronounce and contains the scary ‘acid’ word. It’s the kind of question that we’d laugh about if it caught out our most hated politician. But the survey appeared to ask about DNA. I can only conclude this is a sample of people who have never even watched Jurassic Park, never mind the one respondent who said they’d read the bible as an agricultural text (this led me to the best site ever – Biblical Research Reports: Farming).

DNA has been one of the most amazing discoveries in science, and has been so completely misunderstood by the respondents of this survey that it’s unbelievable. And yet these consumers, by the same survey, place the highest value on the safety and nutrition of their food. Instead of laughing at them, it’s my role as a self-professed science communicator to give them the tools and understanding to interpret the information they need to achieve those values.

In America, it’s just a particularly obese mountain to climb.


I imagine it won’t come as a surprise to most of you when I reveal I am a fan of science fiction. I love the future in all its forms, dystopian, utopian, post-apocalyptic . . . and the future got a little bit closer with some recent news.

In the UK. Channel 4 recently ran a documentary on  Sooam Biotech’s competition to clone a British dog. Spoilers! The Guardian reported that the winner was a dachshund and gave a little summary of all the picky little ethical issues surrounding dog-cloning.

Dear readers, I have watched this documentary for you. If it’s still up you can find it here. This is how much I love you, my readers, I watch Channel 4 documentaries for you. Although I was also making some tea and checking emails at the same time, this is the hobby after all.

It’s . . . it’s interesting. The people in the documentary love their dogs, I would characterise them as ‘novelty seekers’, and there’s definitely an element of natural science ignorance on show.

Now I’ll never penalise someone for general ignorance, there’s plenty in the world I don’t know. I think it’s perfectly acceptable for people to love their pets – in fact the winner, Rebecca Smith, talks about how her dog helped her to recover from bulimia. Seems pretty relevant after last week’s post (which you guys seemed to love by the way – thanks!). And finally, as a sci-fi fan, I’m attracted to the idea of cloning as a sort of intellectual exercise, what will this dog be like, etc., but I still have a great deal of ethical discomfort surrounding this.

The Roslin researcher featured on the show tells the Korean scientists he doesn’t think it will work because genetics are not the be all and end all of behaviour. The show then invokes the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’ which explaining that the Korean scientists have brought two dogs with them, one of whom is a clone and is affectionately referred to as the ‘evil’ one because she’s so spoiled.

My darling readers, if I ever catch any of you using the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’ the force of my rage will manifest in my instant apparition to your side and a swift scolding of the like you haven’t had since you last tracked mud in over your dad’s clean floors.

It’s an outdated phrase which means nothing, puts you into a binary mindset that the outcome of the complexity of biological life is dictated by one trait. If you find yourself in a situation where you wish to express the concept of underlying biology and psychology having different effects on behavioural outcomes, I give you permission to use a much better phrase instead: Genetic and Environmental Interactions. It even boils down to a cool little equation:  GxE Interactions. Please use this phrase. Please banish Nature Vs Nurture from your minds. It’s one of my biggest bugbears.

What Iove about GxE is that it innately implies that both the genetics and the environment come together to produce the behaviour of interest, but it does miss a very important part of the overall picture, one which we scientists are only beginning to understand ourselves. There are elements of your genetic material which can be changed by your environment and you can pass these changes along to the next generation. Epigenetics is a relatively recent scientific field but explains a lot about how evolution can move so quickly. I’m currently working on a project that involves some background reading on epigenetics so I’ll try and do a post on it in the next few weeks, but for the purposes of today, it’s enough to recognise that even though these two dogs started with the exact same genetic material, even smoking more around one of them will start to change certain elements of that code.

So it’s no wonder there is an ‘evil’ clone of these little dogs the Korean scientists are toting around. They’re not the same animals. Identical twins are different people, after all, and they share masses of genetic and environmental information.

So again we come back to the ethical iffiniess around this whole show. They’ve cloned a dog for a woman who clearly relies upon the first animal for support, and the show doesn’t specify whether they’ve really explained the variation inherent in cloning to her. But at the end Rebecca did seem completely smitten by her little puppy. The problems inherent with spoiling a pet not withstanding, I’m sure there’ll be a lot of love there.

But what about the utopia part of this post? Well the EU has recently launched their Code EFABAR, a voluntary code of good practice for responsible animal breeding. This is great news and I hope all breeders seriously take into consideration what this code represents and what traits they’re breeding for. Responsible breeding takes the animal’s health and welfare, along with food chain sustainability and transparency into account. I’d hope all this seems deeply obvious to my readers and I look forward to seeing people sign up to this code (and perhaps the code’s being extended to domestic breeding too?)

So with all that being said, I think I’m going to go search for ‘Sci-Fi’ on Amazon Prime and see what I can rustle up. Live long and prosper, my friends.