Mar 04 2016

The Cost of Banning GMOs

farm1What would happen if the US or the world banned the use of GMO (genetically modified organism) crops? A new study out of Purdue addresses that question.

The authors estimated the reduction in yields for corn, soybeans, and cotton if GM traits were abandoned. They then plugged the results into a well-established model of how much additional land would be needed to make up for that reduction in yield. They found:

Eliminating all GMOs in the United States, the model shows corn yield declines of 11.2 percent on average. Soybeans lose 5.2 percent of their yields and cotton 18.6 percent. To make up for that loss, about 102,000 hectares of U.S. forest and pasture would have to be converted to cropland and 1.1 million hectares globally for the average case.

The most significant environmental footprint of agriculture is land use. Every hectare (2.471 acres or 10,000 square meters) of forest or pasture that you convert to farmland increases carbon in the atmosphere contributing to global warming. Further, converting land to farmland reduces natural habitat or land for grazing.

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Comments: 42

Mar 03 2016

Intellectual Child Abuse

On  February 29th Ken Ham posted on his Facebook page:

Intellectual child abuse: when kids are taught they’re just animals in an evolutionary process. This morning I taught kids the creation/gospel message!

The young people today in Alabama learned they’re not made in the image of an ape — they’re created in the image of God.

Ken Ham, as many likely know, is a young earth creationist. He believes in the literal truth of the Bible and therefore that the universe is 6,000 years old. This is an article of faith, but Ham also tries to support his faith with science, which means he gets the science entirely wrong. That’s what happens when you start with the answer and then work backwards.

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Comments: 34

Feb 28 2016

Science Communication Lecture

I will be travelling for a couple of days, heading down to Virginia where I will be giving a couple of lectures at the NASA Langley Research Center. The talk will be on the art and science of science communication. I will be discussing the many challenges faced by those trying to communicate science to the general public.

I will also be giving the talk on Tuesday March 1, at 7:30 pm, which is free and open to the public, at Virginia Air & Space Center in downtown Hampton, VA.

This should be a fun talk, so if you are in the area please come by.


Comments: 3

Feb 26 2016

Mitochondrial Replacement Therapies

mitochondriaAnother innovative medical technology is on the brink of being applied to actual patients, and it is spawning the typical discussion about the ethics of altering human biology. I think this will likely take the usual course.

The technology is mitochondrial replacement therapies (MRTs). Mitochondria are organelles inside every cell. They are the power plants of cells, burning fuel with oxygen to create ATP, which are molecules that provide energy for all the processes of life.

Interestingly, mitochondria probably derived from independent cells that evolved a symbiotic relationship with eukaryotic cells. They are like bacteria living inside each cell with a specialized function of making ATP.

Mitochondria still retain some of their own DNA, which is partly how we know they were once independent organisms. Mitochondria contain 17,000 base pairs and just 37 genes (compared to 20,000 genes in human nuclear DNA). Over millions of years of evolution they have also outsourced some of their DNA to the nuclear DNA of cells, but also still retain some of their own DNA. Not only does this mitochondrial DNA affect the functioning of the mitochondria itself, it has implications for overall cell function through its interaction with nuclear DNA.

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Feb 25 2016

The Johnson and Johnson Talc Cancer Case

A jury has recently found for the plaintiff against the company Johnson and Johnson over the claim that their talc powder may have caused ovarian cancer in an Alabama woman who died of the cancer at 62. They awarded her family $72 million.

This story has had a great deal of attention because it raises two questions: what is the scientific evidence for a link between talc use and ovarian cancer, and how should the courts rule in such cases when the science is ambiguous?

Talc and Cancer

Concerns about the cancer causing effect of regular talc use stem from a time when talc contained asbestos. Since the 1970s, however, talc has been asbestos-free. Asbestos is clearly linked to cancer, but for the asbestos-free talc the link is not as clear.

There have been a number of large epidemiological studies looking at the association of talc use and risk of ovarian cancer, with some mixed results, but overall not impressive.

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Comments: 44

Feb 23 2016

Identifying Real or Fake Images

CGI-fakeFor anyone active on social media it is almost a daily occurrence that a photo being passed around as if it were real is revealed as a fake. In fact, if you don’t want to look silly, it’s a great idea to Google before you share. A basic search is often all that is necessary, and if the photo is fake it is very likely that Snopes has you covered.

For the more intrepid, you can also use reverse-photo search websites. These will find matches to the photo you select, which can often reveal the original photo that was “photoshopped” in order to create that iconic representation of whatever ideology is being promoted.

Some people have a better eye for photo manipulation than others. Sometimes context is all you need – if the photo seems too perfect to be true, it probably is.

The task of sniffing out fake photos, however, (at least from a technical perspective) is getting more difficult. There are two basic ways to make a fake photo. The most common is to take a real photo and manipulate it. Just replace the words on that protest sign to say whatever dumb thing you want to mock.

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Comments: 21

Feb 22 2016

The Evidence Says – Homeopathy Does Not Work

airguitarIn a recent blog post for the BMJ, Paul Glasziou wrote about the recent Australian review of homeopathic remedies of which he was head:

…I lost interest after looking at the 57 systematic reviews (on 68 conditions) which contained 176 individual studies and finding no discernible convincing effects beyond placebo.

He is not the first person to look at the totality of clinical evidence for homeopathy and find it wanting. Glasziou was chair of the working party that produced the 2015 NHMRC report on homeopathy, which concluded:

Based on the assessment of the evidence of effectiveness of homeopathy, NHMRC concludes that there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.

So, after more than two centuries, and thousands of studies in total, no homeopathic treatment has crossed over the line of what would generally be considered sufficient evidence to prove that it works. That is very telling. I liken the evidence to other dubious claims, such as ESP. After a century of research and thousands of studies there is no clear evidence that ESP is real.

For both homeopathy and ESP there is a great deal of noise, but no clear signal. There are many flawed or small studies, but no repeatable high quality studies. Continue Reading »

Comments: 23

Feb 19 2016

The Nitrogen Problem

Farming-2The farming systems we are putting in place now will need to feed the 9-10 billion people that will inhabit our planet in 2050. This is a huge challenge.

Many people speak about “sustainable farming,” which is a legitimate and important concept. Truly sustainable means that we need to track all of the inputs and outputs in the global food system and see that we can extrapolate that system indefinitely into the future.

One of the most, if not the most, important factor in sustainability is nitrogen. Plants need a lot of nitrogen to grow, and this is often the limiting factor in large-scale food production.

Thinking about where nitrogen ultimately comes from – the entire nitrogen cycle – is like thinking about where energy ultimately comes. It’s a very useful question to ask. For example, when people claim that they can run their car on water they are failing to ask this basic question. When you do you realize that the energy is not coming from burning the hydrogen and oxygen, but from whatever energy source you used the split the water into hydrogen and oxygen.

The same thought process applied to nitrogen is also illuminating. Continue Reading »

Comments: 21

Feb 18 2016

Practicing Medicine Without a License


After four years of rigorous study in medical school, which includes grueling class work and then clinical rotations in which you may work 80 hours a week, followed by killer exams to demonstrate you have mastered a vast body of knowledge, you are not yet competent to practice medicine. Those four years only prepare you for your real training as an intern and then resident, another three or more years.

Even then, newly minted attendings who are supposed to be able to practice independently may appreciate having access to more experienced colleagues.

Further, as you accrue invaluable experience over time your fund of knowledge can actual degrade, because the science of medicine is quickly advancing under your feet. It is a struggle to keep up, which is partly why so many physicians specialize.

This is why one of the most important lessons we teach medical students and doctors in training is to have a very good sense of your own limitations. You need to have some sense of how deep any particular specialty is, so that you can gauge your own relative ignorance. The bottom line is – don’t practice out of your depth.

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Comments: 24

Feb 16 2016

3D Printing Body Parts

3dprintbodypartsA new study published recently in Nature Biotechnology reports a significant advance in the technology of 3D printing body parts designed to be implanted in human patients. This is an exciting technology, but we are still in the early phase of development.

3D Bioprinting

Printing body parts is one approach to creating tissue and organs to replace those lost, damaged, or diseased. This is a top down approach, directly constructing the body part. The other approach is bottom up – growing a body part from stem cells.

The 3D printing technology itself is more than adequate for this task. That is in no way the limiting factor – we can create objects of precise size and shape sufficient for implantation. We can, for example, make an exact replacement for a missing piece of bone.

The biggest limiting factor in creating body parts of “clinically relevant size, shape, and structural integrity,” is keeping the cells alive. The problem is when we print body parts we are printing the skin, muscles, bone, and cartilage, but not nerves or blood vessels. Without blood vessels, the only way for the cells to get oxygen and nutrients is through direct diffusion, which has a limit of 100-200 micrometers. This is too small to be clinically useful.

This was the specific advance reported in the recent study. The researcher incorporated pores or microchannels into the printed tissue, allowing for far greater diffusion. The tissue became more like a sponge.  The bottom line is that this technique worked, they were able to create cartilage, for example, of 3.2 cm x 1.6 cm x 0.9 cm which survived in vivo without necrosis.

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Comments: 4

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