Friday, December 5, 2014

DNA Test Hype; and Studying Life's Origins

A company whose DNA test was banned by the FDA is back: in the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, scientists are learning that complex organic compounds may be forming in Titan's atmosphere: another piece to the puzzle of how life began. Another team found that up to half of Earth's water came from interstellar space.

Finally, a quick look at astrobiology and assumptions about intelligent life in the universe.
  1. DNA Test: Science, Technology, Marketing, and the FDA
  2. Titan and Life's Origins
  3. The Ocean that Fell to Earth?
  4. Astrobiology: Seriously

Applied Genetics: Technology is Technology

We've known that traits are inherited for a thousand generations, maybe more, and applied that knowledge. (November 22, 2013; August 8, 2013)

The deal Jacob made with Laban in Genesis 30:27-3:13 at least hints that Jacob knew how to make sure many dark sheep and spotted or speckled goats were born.
" was thousands of years after people had started breeding animals. Jacob and Laban (who doesn't come across as the brightest bulb in the bin) lived in a society that had been breeding sheep for a very long time...."
(Drifting at the edge of Time and Space (October 29, 2009))
We've been breeding plants and animals for so long that it seems as 'natural' as fire and string. I've said it before — "Just because we've been using it since time out of mind, technology is technology."

More of my take on genetics, technology, and getting a grip:

Genetics: Hippocrates and Old Family Photos

Aristotle, Hippocrates, and folks who practiced Ayurveda, thought about why offspring look like their parents — but not quite. They came up with pretty good explanations, particularly considering that statistical science and X-ray fiber diffraction hadn't been invented yet.

More recently, Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi and Judah Halevi noticed and recorded how specific traits were inherited.

The pace picked up in the 18th and 19th centuries, with research by Karl Friedrich von Gaertner, Gregor Mendel, Joseph Gottlieb Kölreuter, and Charles_Victor_Naudin.

Darwin's theory of evolution made sense, but his pangenesis hereditary theory didn't.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's theories of evolution and heredity weren't a particularly good match with reality either.

Scientists realized that evolution, changing inherited traits, wasn't 'magic.' Some mechanism was at work. But in Darwin's day, nobody had come up with a good explanation for how heredity works.

Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, and Karl Pearson helped get biometrics started. Pearson also helped introduce social Darwinism and eugenics. I'll get back to that.

An obscure scientific journal had published Mendel's work: which was eventually rediscovered in the 20th century.

The Avery–MacLeod–McCarty experiment isolated DNA in the 1940s, Walter Fiers's team completely sequenced the Bacteriophage MS2 genome in 1976, and scientists analyzing DNA are uncovering previously-unknown chapters of humanity's story. (October 31, 2014; July 11, 2014)

That upsets some folks, but not me. I've mentioned old family photos and change before. (July 15, 2014)

Social Darwinism, Eugenics, and Me

Some wealthy Europeans and Americans of the 1870s decided that they were richer than most because they were stronger than anyone else.

I'll grant that they were better at accumulating wealth: but think that 'social Darwinism' is an ethical minefield.

Besides, wealth and political power isn't much good if you don't have kids. Being the richest man in the graveyard never appealed to me much, and that's another topic.

The 'we're better than others' Victorians didn't call themselves social Darwinists. That term didn't get traction until about 1944, when the Allies were interfering with an effort to apply social Darwinism and eugenics on a continental scale.

Despite the catchy name, I think social Darwinism can be credited to folks like Herbert Spencer, Thomas Hobbes, and Thomas Robert Malthus. Oddly enough, tomfoolery seems to come from another Thomas, and that's yet another topic.

The notion being part of a 'superior race' was more appealing before the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei started purging Europe of Lebensunwertes Leben (life unworthy of life) around the middle of the 20th century. Das herrenvolk's policies gave eugenics supporters a serious public relations problem. (August 24, 2012)

Odd notions aren't limited to one nation or era. One of my college professors claimed that 'races' don't exist because traits like skin tone and hair curliness overlap. I sympathize with him, a little, since back then we were still very close to the 'good old days' of 'whites only' signs.

My ancestors looked Anglo: with a haircut, new clothes, and some practice, we could pass for 'regular Americans.' Getting a job wasn't always easy, though.

A substantial fraction of my forebears are the 'inferior' "Irish Iberians" pictured in Harpers Weekly. (1899)

"No Irish need apply" notices were before my day, but that sort of thing leaves a lasting impression.

Getting back to eugenics, the idea of killing defective people doesn't appeal to me: even if the motive is 'compassionate:' because they wouldn't enjoy a "quality lifestyle," as the argument went in my youth.

I was born with defective hips, and probably inherited by glitchy neurochemistry, too. Even in my early teens, I realized that I'd probably have been removed in the second or third sweep: and I prefer being alive to the alternative.

Being Human

So, why aren't I calling for outlawing genetic studies, and denouncing scientists as Godless advocates of iniquity?

Simple answer: I'm Catholic, and understand my faith.

Science and technology, learning about the universe and using that knowledge to develop new tools, is part of being human. We're expected to use our brains: wisely. (Wisdom 7:17; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 307, 1730, 2292-2295, 2415-2418)

Like anything else humans do, ethics apply to science. No matter how 'scientific' someone's curiosity is, experiments like the ones performed at Auschwitz, Dachau, Tuskegee, and Willowbrook are wrong.

The problem isn't science. Experimentation on humans is okay unless it involves "disproportionate or avoidable risks," or experiments are done without informed consent. We're supposed to treat animals humanely, by the way: but animal experimentation is okay, within reason. (Catechism, 2295, 2416-2418)

Our view of human life won't let us kill people because they're defective: and genocide is not acceptable behavior either, no matter what the motive. (Catechism, 2268, 2313)

God, Clay, and Getting a Grip

We are created in the image of God, male and female. Each of us is a person: not something, but someone; made from the stuff of this world, and filled with God's 'breath:' matter and spirit, body and soul. (Genesis 2:7; Catechism, 355, 357, 362-368)

That doesn't mean that the first of us looked pretty much like Albrecht Dürer's 1504 engraving. I've said it before: trying to believe Adam and Eve were German is daft.

I read Genesis 1:1-2:4 and 2:4-25 as an explanation of God's role in our existence: among other things. As far as I'm concerned, all that's changed in the last few centuries is how much we know about the "clay" God used. (February 23, 2014; December 13, 2013)

That reminds me: we're made in the image of God, "little less than a god," as Psalms 8:6 says. We're pretty hot stuff: but we're not God.

I've used this story before:

God was walking along a riverbank with some man. They were talking about how much humanity had learned recently. The man was particularly impressed with developments in molecular biology. "I can make life, just like you did in Genesis," he said.

God asked, "could you make a man?" The man thought a minute, then said, "yes."

"Okay," said the Almighty. "Let's see you do that." They had come to a spot on the riverbank where a small landslide had exposed fresh clay. The man bent down and scooped up a lump of clay.

"Wait," God said. "If you're going to do this on your own, you have to create your own clay."

My father told that short tale when we were discussing humanity's capacities and limitations: and I've used it before. (February 10, 2013; January 25, 2012)

Our first parents were masters of themselves and in harmony with the world, with the perfect job.

Then we decided we wanted to be "like gods," on our own terms; at which point Adam tried blaming his wife — and God.

That did not end well. (Genesis 1:27, 31, 2:15; Catechism, 371-379)

If we lived in an unchanging world, Genesis 3:1-19 would leave us with no hope. We'd be stuck in a broken world.

Happily, change happens. This universe is in a state of journeying toward an ultimate perfection. (Catechism, 302)

Over the last few generations, we've started realizing just how long the universe has been on that journey: 13,798,000,000 years. Earth formed 4,540,000,000 years back: give or take 4,540,000 or so

Some folks don't approve: and insist that Ussher, a steadfast Calvinist, has to be right. Ussher decided that creation started on the nightfall preceding October 23, 4004 BC: based on what he read in the Old Testament. That was pretty good British scholarship back in the 1650s.

Me? I prefer taking reality 'as is,' and see what we're learning about the scale of creation as opportunities for "greater admiration" of God's work. (October 10, 2014; July 15, 2014)

Folks who ardently defended 'Bible truths' against "Reason, empty with the fumes of that same flattery by which we originally fell" predate Darwin.
"...Such is the Basis of Scripture, and such also is the legitimate deduction of History. ... Reason, empty with the fumes of that same flattery by which we originally fell, cometh of the unhallowed embrace, and finding in the crust of the Earth certain animal Types which ascend in the progress of Time, from the more simple to the complex, ... avers that Matter, like 'the Nilotic Mud,' generated Creatures with the mere dawn of life, which improving upon themselves, at last elicited a man, a man like to all previous existences, imperfect, rudimental, savage. We care not how much the offensive Thesis is laughed at in the person of grotesque Lamark...."
("The Book of the Great Sea-Dragons, Ichthyosauri and Plesiosauri," Thomas Hawkins, Thomas; p. 1 (1840))
Since I believe that God created, and is creating, everything: studying things of the world and things of faith can not get in the way of faith. (Catechism, 159, 279, 301)

Being curious is okay, and scientific discoveries should be cause for "even greater admiration" for God's greatness. (Psalms 19:2; Catechism, 282-289)

1. DNA Test: Science, Technology, Marketing, and the FDA

(From Science Photo Library, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The personal DNA test detects a range of gene variants"
(BBC News))
"Controversial DNA test comes to UK"
Michelle Roberts, Paul Rincon, BBC News (December 2, 2014)

"A personal DNA test that has sparked controversy in the US has launched in the UK.

"The UK's Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) says the 23andMe spit test, which is designed to give details about a person's health risks based on their DNA, can be used with caution.

"But critics say it may not be accurate enough to base health decisions on.

"The company, California-based 23andMe, stands by its test.

"Backed by Google, the firm offered US customers details of health risks based on gene variants they carry.

"But in November 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the company from marketing its service in the US, claiming 23andMe had failed to provide adequate information to support the claims it made about results...."
There's quite a bit going on here. 23andMe probably wants to sell more of their services, and government regulators on both sides of the Atlantic have their own issues. Doctors presumably want reliable diagnostic tools, and folks have varying sorts of health issues.

I'll get to 23andMe's troubles, genetics, and patent medicines: after making obvious, or maybe not-so-obvious, points about health, faith, and ethics.

If you've been to this blog before, feel free to skip to the next heading — or take a coffee break, go for a walk, whatever.

Being healthy, or not being healthy, is okay. Health, wealth, or their lack, doesn't mean we're being punished or rewarded. (Matthew 5:45; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2448)

Health is a 'precious gift.' I'm expected to take care of my health: within reason. (Catechism, 2274-2279, 2288-2289)

Obsessing over good health, putting anything besides God at the top of my priorities, is called idolatry: and is a very bad idea. (Catechism, 2112-2114)

Genetic testing can, I think, be a valuable tool. But like any other tool, it can be misused. I see no problem with using DNA tests to spot health risks: if the doctor and patient use that knowledge to maintain the patient's health.

Checking someone's DNA to see if the individual has the 'right' or 'wrong' traits: that's a bad idea that gets worse if folks see to it that only the 'right' genes get passed along.
"...'...Such manipulations are contrary to the personal dignity of the human being and his integrity and identity'85 which are unique and unrepeatable."
(Catechism, 2275)
Enough of that. Let's look at why 23andMe got in trouble with the FDA.

"A List that has Grown Over Time"

"...For example, your company’s website at (most recently viewed on November 6, 2013) markets the PGS for providing 'health reports on 254 diseases and conditions,' including categories such as 'carrier status,' 'health risks,' and 'drug response,' and specifically as a 'first step in prevention' that enables users to 'take steps toward mitigating serious diseases' such as diabetes, coronary heart disease, and breast cancer. Most of the intended uses for PGS listed on your website, a list that has grown over time, are medical device uses under section 201(h) of the FD&C Act. Most of these uses have not been classified and thus require premarket approval or de novo classification, as FDA has explained to you on numerous occasions....

"...In your letter dated January 9, 2013, you stated that the firm is 'completing the additional analytical and clinical validations for the tests that have been submitted' and is 'planning extensive labeling studies that will take several months to complete.' Thus, months after you submitted your 510(k)s and more than 5 years after you began marketing, you still had not completed some of the studies and had not even started other studies necessary to support a marketing submission for the PGS. It is now eleven months later, and you have yet to provide FDA with any new information about these tests...."
(Food and Drug Administration's warning letter to the CEO of 23andMe, Inc. (November 22, 2013)) [emphasis mine]
I don't know what led up to that letter.

If 23andMe's website had an expanding list of nifty uses for their test kits, before they'd completed evaluating their product, my guess is that the company's marketing department had more influence than its lawyers.

There's nothing wrong with marketing, at least I hope not: since I spent two decades working in that field. Like anything else humans do, though, marketing and advertising can be ethical: or not.

We've come a long way since the 'good old days,' when advertisements for products like Bonnore's Electro Magnetic Bathing Fluid "greatly exaggerated the curative powers of their remedies," as the Smithsonian's page puts it:
Wacky claims and snake oil salesmen didn't disappear when America's Food and Drug Administration started in 1906: but the heyday of patent medicines was over in my country. My opinion.

After 1906, American drug makers had to label their products if they contained alcohol, morphine, opium, cocaine, heroin, eucaine, chloroform, cannabis indica, chloral hydrate, or acetanilide. ("Balm of America: Patent Medicine Collection | History")

More than a century later, we're still sorting out what's legal, what's not, and that's yet again another topic.

Experts and Viewpoints

"...Dr Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in California, said the UK and Canadian launches could be a way of placing pressure on the FDA by demonstrating that regulators in other countries found no fault with their product.

" 'Genetic testing is an important medical tool in certain situations, but for healthy people as a way to predict common complex diseases, it's pretty useless,' she told BBC News.

" 'Most complex diseases and almost all the common ones - with some exceptions such as the BRCA 1 and 2 genes (implicated in breast cancer) - are multi-factorial with many genes and other biological, social and environmental causes.'..."
(Michelle Roberts, Paul Rincon, BBC News)
Wikipedia identifies the Center for Genetics and Society as "politically progressive:" which doesn't make them always right; or wrong. (November 3, 2008)

Dr. Darnovsky's claim that genetic testing is "pretty useless" for predicting "common complex diseases" in healthy folks may be right: to a point. We're very complex creatures. Our genes are just one factor influencing our health.

But I also think that getting data about one of many factors is useful: as long as we remember that it's just one piece of the puzzle, not the whole picture.

Stanford University's director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences, Professor Hank Greely, made an astute observation:
" 'They may also want to make it clear to the public, to their investors, to their employees that they're alive and kicking.' "
(Michelle Roberts, Paul Rincon, BBC News)
Would I get my genes tested by 23andMe's product?

That's two questions:
  1. Would I have my genetic code tested?
    • Probably not
  2. Would I prefer having a doctor use 23andMe's product?
    • No
My household's budget doesn't have much room for 'extras.' We know family history for quite a few generations, and so have a reasonably good picture of inherited glitches we should look for. I'd be fascinated with results of a detailed genetic profile: but that's a luxury we can't afford.

From what I've seen, 23andMe's testing product may or may not give accurate results.

The company's marketing decisions make trusting the technology they sell difficult. That won't matter to 23andMe, though, since I'm not one of the folks who decides which medical tech gets used.

Looking Ahead

My kids may live long enough to have genetic screening, 3D imaging, and diagnostic nanobots, used as routinely as thermometers and stethoscopes are today.

The odds are that they won't be as enthusiastic about the new tech as I am. The one who's an artist seems to prefer old-school drawing to digital graphics, and that's still another topic.

More about what's coming:

2. Titan and Life's Origins

(From NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute, via, used w/o permission.)
("Saturn's moon Titan appears as a hazy ball from a distance in this photo taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft."
"Saturn's Hazy Moon Titan Holds Clues About Life's Origins"
Elizabeth Howell, Astrobiology Magazine, via (November 27, 2014)

" Where did life on Earth come from? There are several theories as to what might have happened. Maybe comets came bearing organic material, or life was transported from another planet such as Mars, or something happened in the chemistry of our planet that made life possible.

"Luckily for researchers, there is a possible laboratory in our solar system to help us better understand the conditions on Earth before life arose — a situation sometimes referred to as a 'prebiotic' environment. That location is Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.

"Titan has fascinated researchers for decades, particularly after NASA's Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by Saturn in the 1980s. The missions revealed a moon completely socked in with haze, which is a different experience to those used to gazing at Earth's airless, cratered moon...."
Panspermia, the idea that life on Earth arrived from somewhere else, goes back at least to Anaxagoras, more than two dozen centuries back. Some 19th century scientists suggested that life could spread on meteors or comets, which restarted the idea in our era.

A few years ago, scientists found evidence that microorganisms could spread from one planet to another, in rock blasted into space by meteor, comet, or asteroid impacts. Organic material from Earth got trapped inside spatter from a meteor impact.

Darwin glass fell back to Earth, but embedded organics could be thrown out of Earth's atmosphere: or arrive on Earth from a Martian impact. It's possible that life on Earth started on Mars. (January 17, 2014; October 25, 2013)

Panspermia may describe how life can travel from planet to planet: but not how life starts.

Scientists have found several explanations for how life started that cover at least some of the facts, including:
  • A primordial soup of water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen; zapped by lightning
  • Molecules deposited on minerals embedded in clay
  • Complex molecules
    • Stirred and heated near hydrothermal vents
    • Preserved in ice
  • Metabolic chemistry coming first, then genes
The 'struck by lightning' theory could work: but we've since learned that Earth probably didn't have enough hydrogen when life began.

Thinking that metabolic chemistry could start before living critters had genes isn't as crazy as it may seem. Terrence W. Deacon showed that heating a molecular brew produces short-lived "autocells:" microscopic capsules which could, in principle, trap organics long enough to start the chemical reactions we call "life." (October 18, 2013)

Background on Professor Deacon's autocells:
An intriguing possibility is that early organic molecules may have formed on diamond crystals: and that's — another topic. (June 27, 2014; Apathetic Lemming of the North; July 28, 2008)

How can I claim that God exists: and not be horrified that we're learning how life began? It has to do with secondary causes.

Tholins, Faith, and Knowledge

"...'The study of organic chemistry on Titan's surface would extend our understanding of the diversity of prebiotic chemistry, and perhaps life's origin on Earth,' said Dr. Chao He, a chemist at the University of Houston (now moved to Johns Hopkins University), who led the study...."
(Elizabeth Howell, Astrobiology Magazine, via
Dr. He's team formed tholins, simple organic molecules, in a close approximation of Titan's atmosphere.

Similar processes probably happen on Titan, so the question now is how stable tholins are in Titan's atmosphere and on its surface: and if Titan's tholins include chemical precursors of life.

I'm not shocked that scientists are learning how life works: and knowing something of the process doesn't threaten my belief that God exists, and sustains this universe.

Fearing knowledge is irrational. As Leo XIII wrote, "truth cannot contradict truth." (Catechism, 159, 214-217; "Providentissimus Deus")

Knowing that a fire's light and heat involve electron transitions doesn't cause a crisis of faith, forcing me to decide whether I'll believe that physical realities exist or that God exists. (July 15, 2014)

Everything we observe reflects a facet of the Creator's truth, according to its nature. (Catechism, 301-308)

All natural processes involve secondary causes: creatures acting in knowable ways, following laws woven into this creation. Since I believe that God creates everything, and that God is not a liar: learning about this universe gives me more reasons to praise God.

3. The Ocean that Fell to Earth?

"Up to half of Earth's water is older than the sun"
Aviva Rutkin, New Scientist (September 25, 2014)

Image: Stocktrek/Getty"...Much of the water on our planet and around the solar system started out as tiny grains of ice floating in interstellar space. The discovery provides important clues about not only the make-up of our solar system, but also what planets around other stars might be like....

"...All water in the solar system – whether on planets, in comets or meteorites, or icy moons like Europa – contains a certain amount of deuterium – an isotope of hydrogen that has an extra neutron attached....

"...Ice found between stars is even more deuterium-rich, so it was long suspected that it was the source of our solar system's heavy water. But the young solar system was so violent and full of radiation that any incoming ice should have been ripped apart, recombining later into water – according to this picture.

"But when (University of Michigan in Ann Arbor's Ilsedore) Cleeves and her collaborators built a model of the early sun, they found that this explanation didn't stand up. After their model scrapped all of the interstellar ice, they found that oxygen was being locked up in frozen carbon monoxide. And there wasn't enough ionised, deuterium-rich hydrogen being produced either. In short, the nascent solar system wouldn't have had the ingredients for water with the high levels of deuterium we see...."
This isn't a new idea. Deuterium levels in Earth's ocean is very similar to what we've found in comets, which suggests that water in both comes from the same place. Comets probably come from the Oort cloud, debris on the borderlands of Sol left over from the Solar system's formation. (November 14, 2014; October 24, 2014)

Cleeves' research is important, though, since it confirms what scientists expected. If the new numbers are accurate, as much as half of Earth's water came from interstellar space.

University of Chicago planetary scientist Fred Ciesla points out that water ice isn't the only stuff found between stars. Scientists have found organic molecules too, like formic acid, benzine, and iso-propyl cyanide.

"Organic" doesn't mean "living," but it looks like life's chemical components are spread throughout this galaxy. (November 28, 2014; October 3, 2014)

If Earth's water fell from interstellar space, the odds are pretty good that many Earth-size planets circling other stars have oceans too.

4. Astrobiology: Seriously

"Introduction: Astrobiology"
Stephen Battersby, New Scientist (September 4, 2006)

"Nobody has yet seen an extraterrestrial, which may sound like a problem in establishing a science of astrobiology. But in the past 20 years or so, scientists have found clues that life may be quite common in the universe, and many are hopeful that they will soon find hard evidence of life beyond Earth.

"Some hints come from terrestrial life. Biologists have discovered many species of extremophile - micro-organisms that thrive in extreme environments, such as alkali lakes and rock fissures deep underground. Life may have originated on the ocean floor around thermal vents or black smokers, which may be common features of other planets and moons.

"And chemical traces of metabolism appear in Earth's rocks shortly after the planet's ferocious Late Heavy Bombardment by meteorites, implying that life might be able to get started quickly and easily...."
Life may be unique to Earth: or we may find life in the oceans of Europa and Enceladus, and on thousands of Earth-size planets in our part of the Milky Way galaxy. Right now, we don't know.

Since we live on a planet circling a mid-size star, roughly halfway out from the center of our galaxy: I think it's likely that life may be a fairly common phenomenon.

Either way, my faith wouldn't be shaken. God's God, I'm not, and I'm okay with that. My job is praising God and admiring the Creator's work: not telling the Almighty how to run the universe.

Stephen Battersby's article ends with the Fermi paradox: if civilizations are common, why haven't we seen seen them?

Conventional pessimism says that we haven't met space aliens because people destroy themselves as soon as they get as tech-savvy as we are. I think the 'tech kills' attitude is as silly as the older 'tech solves all our problems' one.

Maybe we are the only people in the entire universe. Or not. Like I said: we don't know.

If we do have neighbors, I think it's safe to assume that they're not human: and that's — what else? — another topic. (June 27, 2014; May 9, 2014)

Still more about life, the universe, and being human:

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.