December 5th, 2008
amatokin-ad-small.jpgAd published December 2008. Click to enlarge.

Amatokin is an expensive facial cream that claims to reduce wrinkles by using stem cell technology. I discovered an ad for Amatokin (right) recently in a glossy fashion mag, and read the copy because I was curious about what spurious claims the manufacturer was making about stem cells in their product. Turns out, the ad doesn’t bother to make any actual claims. Rather, the association between stem cells and Amatokin seems to be one generated by publishing unregulated ad copy that puts these two phrases within close proximity.

I’m disappointed, I have to say. I had hoped the ad would claim (preposterously) that there were actual stem cells in the cream, which would be the second grossest thing ever. Living human cell lines to slather on your face! (You know what that reminds me of? The first grossest thing ever.) There is an implication that the cream instead contains some magic molecule that promotes growth of your own stem cells: “That’s why science is seeking to activate the potential of our inherent adult stem cell reservoirs.”

But that has a pretty serious ick factor too: overactivation of stem cells = cancer. Fortunately, there is absolutely no evidence that this cream has any effect whatsoever, in either stimulating stem cells or fighting wrinkes. But pseudo-reporting about this dubious product is smeared all over the interwebs, much of it lazily plagarizing the same copy (here, here, here, here, here, here). Charmingly, a major talking point is the “controversial” aspect of Amatokin:

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Dance dance… evolution?

November 22nd, 2008

Some things are really hard to understand. Like, how to resolve pathways of functional coupling in human hemoglobin—even if using quantitative low temperature isoelectric focusing of asymmetric mutant hybrids. So hard!

Fortunately, Dr. Vince LiCata, a researcher at Louisiana State University, has performed an interpretive dance on this very topic. In fact, Dr. LiCata has recently won the 2009 AAAS/Science “Dance Your PhD” Contest in the “professor” category. (There are also grad student, post-doc, and most-popular-on-YouTube categories.) Watch Dr. LiCata and his team perform the winning dance:

This is an extraordinary contest. Previous winners received a year’s subscription to Science. But this year the winners get something more:

Each [winner] will be paired with a professional choreographer. (A team of 4 choreographers in Chicago are ready and waiting.) Over the next couple of weeks (via email and telephone) you must help your choreographer understand your article, its aims, the hypotheses it tests, and its big-picture context. With that knowledge, the choreographers will collaborate with a group of professional dancers to create a 4-part dance based on the science behind the 4 winning research articles.

You will be honored guests at the 2009 AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago in February, [where] you will have front row seats to the world debut of “THIS IS SCIENCE”—the professional dance interpretation of your scientific research.

The mission of this contest is to bring scientists and artists together, and to engage the public with science. I’ve never heard of anything quite like it, at least not anything that is being developed from such grassroots origins—the intent is to produce a full theatrical run and world tour! Winners are expected to participate as “science diplomats,” bridging that perilous gap between basic science research and public interest and understanding. How fantastic! You can watch other dances, like creator John Bohannon’s interpretation of the role of the WSS operon in the adaptive evolution of experimental populations of Pseudomonas fluorescens SBW25, on the contest site or on YouTube.

Palin not for fruit fly research

October 25th, 2008

As you may have heard, Sarah Palin had something to say about science in her recent policy speech in Pittsburg. The woman may be all about seal DNA research, but she thinks fruit fly research is absurd. I kid you not! A quote, from her speech promoting investment of federal research dollars towards childhood disabilities like autism:

For many parents of children with disabilities, the most valuable thing of all is information. Early identification of a cognitive or other disorder, especially autism, can make a life-changing difference. […] We’ve got a three trillion dollar budget, and Congress spends some 18 billion dollars a year on earmarks for political pet projects. That’s more than the shortfall to fully fund the IDEA. Where does a lot of that earmark money end up anyway? […] You’ve heard about some of these pet projects they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.

So here’s the thing. Fruit fly research is valuable because it contributes to our knowledge of things like… autism. Here’s a list of recent basic science research findings using Drosophila melanogaster, my model organism of choice, that have contributed to understanding autism.

September 2007: Research on Drosophila describes the function of neurexin, a protein encoded by a gene for autism. This gene is currently being developed for autism screening in children. Popular press. Scientific article.

April 2008: Drug screening in Drosophila reveals that some pharmaceuticals have the potential to reverse the effects of fragile X syndrome, a leading cause of autism. Popular press. Scientific article.

October 2008: Research on Drosophila shows that mutations at the gene that causes fragile X syndrome affect the transport of mRNA molecules, and suggests a new mechanism for how the disease works. Scientific article.

In progress: A research group in Belgium (not the same as France, but close!) is investigating a gene thought to cause autism, neurobeachin, using Drosophila. Project announcement.

And I am not a genius. These were the first few hits on Google for “drosophila autism.” Furthermore, a quick Pubmed search for “drosophila autism” generates 114 hits (that’s 114 published scientific papers, Palin) and a search for “drosophila ‘mental retardation'” generates 826 hits. That’s research that has an awful lot to do with the public good.

Making an example of couch potatoes

October 21st, 2008
cpo.jpgIllustration by Beto Alvarez, Inquirer Staff Artist

Yesterday the Philadelphia Inquirer profiled an article just published by my lab, which demonstrates the role of a gene called couch potato in determining reproductive diapause in fruit flies. Genes in flies are named after their mutant phenotype; when this gene is disrupted, the animals lie around like lazy couch potatoes.

The nifty thing about this new work is that it demonstrates how a single gene—and more specifically, a single nucleotide site within that gene—affects a major phenotype under strong selection in natural populations. Diapause is a physiological state which permits flies to withstand long periods of stress. Flies are more likely to survive winter if they are in diapause, but not all flies are capable of entering diapause. This paper demonstrates that a single nucleotide polymorphism, which is located within the couch potato gene, determines whether flies are diapause-capable or not. From Florida to Maine, natural populations of fruit flies have gradually increasing frequencies of the nucleotide that confers diapause capability—almost all Maine flies, which must survive long winters, carry the diapause allele. Evidence suggests that this polymorphism affects other traits, like lifespan and reproduction, as well. So it’s likely that this single mutation has significant effects on the evolution of many traits. A tidy example of evolution at work (for those keeping track).

The article was published yesterday in PNAS.

Nerd nite

October 9th, 2008
benjamin-franklin.jpgThe original nerdy Philadelphian.

A couple months ago the NYTimes published an article about “nerdy” people in an East Village bar giving powerpoint presentations on things like intestinal fish tapeworms and light-sensitive robots. Nerd nite originated in Boston and has boasted such presentations as “Beyond ‘Simple Gifts’: the music of the Shakers” and “Cnidaria and Porifera: the socially misunderstood invertebrates.” We really, really need to get something like this going in Philadelphia. Maybe Geekadelphia can get on it?

Anyway the Times article opened with quite a hook (pun intended), aiming, I’m sure, to reel in the dweeb-inclined with a list of what really does have to be the nerdiest of all the creatures. “Pinworms. Flatworms. Roundworms. Fish tapeworms tens of meters long, inside someone’s intestine.” Gross! For those of you for whom this sounds awesome, I have it on good authority that someone may be talking about worms again soon in the East Village. This time the presentation will be on a bizarre copulatory plug phenomenon, in which male worms—which usually put the copulatory plug in the female vulva, where it belongs—sometimes put it on the heads of other males! Obviously, you don’t want to miss it.

Palin for seal DNA research

September 11th, 2008

seal1.jpgYesterday Talking Points Memo pointed out that several of Alaska Governor Palin’s earmark requests were for… science. Specifically:

Palin’s office requested $2 million in federal monies to study crab mating habits; $494,900 for the recreational halibut harvest and $3.2 million for seal genetics research.

Most of the blogospheric attention on this has been focused on the scandal of Palin’s love of earmarks or the inconsistency of her positions. But there has also been some implicit criticism of spending so much money on something as preposterous as research on seal DNA. Josh Marshall of TPM redirected the discussion by addressing the issue head-on, explaining, along with the fact that his father was a marine biologist, that he did not mean to imply that spending money on such research is wasteful just because it sounds funny. This point was motivated by several substantive comments, which included the declaration that while spending taxpayer dollars on ecologically important issues is good, doing so through pork barrel initiatives is not. For example:

good science is funded through peer review, not via earmarks and lobbying.

we don’t want science funded this way, it leads to croneyism and misuse. give the money to NIH and NSF and don’t do by congressman trading favors.

earmarks are lousy way to fund science, bad, bad, bad.

Calling all Steves

September 6th, 2008

panda.jpgThe Evolution Directory posted this announcement today:

NCSE and The Panda’s Thumb are recruiting scientists named Steve, or Stephanie, or Stephen, or Esteban, et al. to join Project Steve, a tongue-in-cheek response to creationists. All members of Project Steve agree with the following statement:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to “intelligent design,” to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation’s public schools.

But you can only sign it if you have a doctorate and are named “Steve” or some variation thereof. At last count they had 895 members and are pushing to cross 900 so they can make new t-shirts that say “more than 900 Steves support evolution”. So please pass this message to any scientists or academics that you know named “Steve” (et al.) and urge them to join up.

For more information, go here!

Bulging eyes and flashy pecs

September 1st, 2008
titkaalik1.jpgTiktaalik visiting the Leidy Biology building at UPenn during the filming of The Tiktaalik Song music video.

The University of Pennsylvania conducts something called the Penn Reading Project each fall for incoming first-year undergrads. Each student reads (or is supposed to read) an assigned book, and faculty from all different departments in the university host small-group discussions.

This year the book is Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body, by (former Penn professor!) Neil Shubin. Shubin co-discovered Tiktaalik, a 375 million year old amphibious fish.

Spicing up this year’s reading project is… a music video about Tiktaalik! The Ohio band The Indoorfins was commissioned to write a song about this transitional fossil, its discovery by Shubin, its participation in the Penn Reading Project… The whole thing is pretty wild. Check out the video here. Warning: the refrain is really catchy.

If it’s a credible theory…

August 31st, 2008
pawlenty-mtp.jpgGovernor Tim Pawlenty defends intelligent design on this morning’s Meet the Press

This morning on Meet The Press, Tom Brokaw interviewed Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty to discuss the McCain campaign. And, to my surprise, they talked about evolution.

McCain running mate Sarah Palin’s support of creationism has been picked up by the national media and I’m totally enthused by the idea that the Republican campaign may be forced to address this issue head-on and produce a coherent stance on evolution and creationism in public schools. Of course, there was absolutely no coherence in Governor Pawlenty’s response to Brokaw’s question about whether Palin was right to promote teaching creationism:

I saw her comments on it yesterday, and I thought they were appropriate, which is, you know, let’s–if there are competing theories, and they are credible, her view of it was, according to comments in the newspaper, allow them all to be presented, or allow them both to be presented so students could be exposed to both, and–or more, and have a chance to be exposed to the, to the various theories and make up their own minds.

As tipster commenter Andrew pointed out, Pawlenty begins by calling it “creationism” but then drifts into calling it “intelligent design.” (Just more proof that the Dover prosecutors got it right: intelligent design is just religious creationism dressed in an ugly labcoat.) He dodges the real issue of what should be enforced in school curricula by arguing for local power at each school district, but he happily outs himself as an anti-evolutionist:

Intelligent design is something that in my view is a plausible and credible and something that I personally believe in.

So there’s another one for the list. You can read the transcript or watch the Netcast of today’s Meet the Press here.

Palin is pro-creationism

August 29th, 2008

palin.jpgSarah Palin, Governor of Alaska and John McCain’s just-announced running mate in the current presidential race, supports creationism.

Her position was made clear in her 2006 gubernatorial campaign, when she said it should be taught alongside evolution. Creationism, unlike intelligent design, is an openly religious ideology and is prohibited from being taught in public schools by the First Amendment. Palin later soft-pedaled her statement, explaining, “I don’t think there should be a prohibition against debate if it comes up in class. It doesn’t have to be part of the curriculum.” But the Republican Party of Alaska’s position is that “Creation Science be given equal representation with the other scientific theories in the classroom.”

Regarding her personal views, she has said: “I believe we have a creator,” and was unable to explain whether she accepted evolution: “I’m not going to pretend I know how all this came to be.”