Friday, March 6, 2015

Mutant Cows, Mass Migrations, and a Brain Gene

Bovine tuberculosis may not be a big problem, if Ministry of Agriculture in Northwest A&F University, Yangling, research pays off.

Meanwhile, we may be learning who made Europe look and sound the way it does today: and scientists at the Max Plank Institute discovered how a uniquely-human gene helps our brains grow.
  1. Gene-Swapped Cows
  2. Yamnaya, Yamna; and 'There Goes the Neighborhood,' 4,500 Years Back
  3. Another Uniquely-Human 'Brain' Gene

Science, Competence, and Ethics

Scientists in China have developed tuberculosis-resistant cows. I think it's a good idea: but am pretty sure that some folks won't.

So, why aren't I recoiling in horror at scientists "tampering with things man was not supposed to know?"

Short answer: I'm a Catholic, and know a little about my faith.

Studying this universe and using that knowledge to make new tools is part of being human. Ethics apply, but science and technology aren't transgressions. They're part of our job. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2292-2296, 2402-2405, 2456)

I've seen attitudes toward science and technology shift, quite a bit. I grew up when quite a few folks still thought human ingenuity would solve all our problems: or at least make "the future" a magical place to live.

I miss the silly optimism, sort of. But don't think it made much more sense than assuming that science and technology would kill us all, destroying Earth's "fragile" ecosystem in the process. (June 15, 2014; February 14, 2014)

Movies like "Things to Come" and "Soylent Green" reflect those attitudes. I recommend seeing the 1936 "Things to Come" — and H. G. Wells' "The Shape of Things to Come" 1933 novel.

Maybe "Biker Mice from Mars" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" represent a more balanced view — a less serious one, at any rate.

H. G. Wells' "The Shape of Things to Come" is, depending on your point of view, quite optimistic or very grim.

Me? I'll be surprised if we cobble together a global government in the next few millennia.

Humanity's fractured family may eventually build an "international authority with the necessary competence and power" to settle arguments without war. (Catechism, 2307-2317; "Gaudium et Spes," 79 § 4)

I hope so.

When, and if, we build a reasonable facsimile of Tennyson's "Federation of the world," I'm quite sure it won't be perfect. But it could easily be better than the mess we have now.

("Sun City," by Adimono, used w/o permission.)

Meanwhile, we have work to do. Lots of work. And that's another topic. (February 20, 2015; October 26, 2014; September 7, 2014)

1. Gene-Swapped Cows

"Scientists produce TB-resistant cows"
BBC News (March 3, 2015)

"Scientists in China have produced a herd of genetically engineered cows that are better able to ward off bovine TB infection.

"The long-term goal of the research is to avoid the need to cull livestock by breeding disease resistant cattle.

"Bovine TB is a risk in many areas, including New Zealand, England and Wales, and parts of Africa and Asia.

"In the UK over 26,000 cattle were slaughtered in 2013 at a cost to taxpayers of £100m.

"Researchers at the Ministry of Agriculture in Northwest A&F University, Yangling, China, used hi-tech genetic technology to insert a mouse gene into Holstein-Friesian cattle...."
If bovine tuberculosis is a problem in New Zealand, England, and Wales: how come Chinese scientists are trying to make TB-resistant cows?

My guess is that China is finally getting back on its feet, recovering from what happened after the Qing dynasty went into auto-destruct mode. China had been a — arguably, the — world economic power since the days of the Han dynasty and silk road.

I don't mind the idea of a world with a contemporary equivalent of Shanxi merchants — partly because I'm an American, and realize that folks with wealth make better customers and trade partners than those without.

On the other hand, taking a line through "The Mask of Fu Manchu" and "Battle Beneath the Earth," I could assume that there's a plot afoot. Think "The Manchurian Candidate" meets "Brainstorm." And that's yet another topic. Topics.

More seriously: protecting against mild tuberculosis infections is a start. Developing cows with more resistance sounds like a good idea.

Maybe there's a practical problem with putting mouse genes in cows: but gene-swapping between species has been going on for — most likely — billions of years. What's new is that we're doing the swapping. (February 6, 2015)

I don't see ethical issues with tweaking the genetics of livestock. We've been doing that for — a very long time, not that 'we've always done it' is an excuse for bad behavior. More to the point, grafting olive trees is a metaphor in Romans 11:19-24: and those verses don't seem to condemn the practice.

Maybe someone's assumed that Deuteronomy 22:9 forbids grafting, or condemns marrying outside Debrett's Peerage, a lower Dun & Bradstreet number, or whatever.

I don't: particularly since it's about seeds, and comes between a rule about parapets and another about using draft animals. (February 14, 2014)

Laban's Sheep

Genetic engineering tech like gel electrophoresis is new — but genetic manipulation isn't. Unless you're a hunter, the odds are pretty good that you've never eaten food that didn't come from a genetically modified plant or animal.

We don't think of "domesticated" animals as "GMOs," but today's cattle are the result of more than ten millennia of genetic tweaking.

We're developing new technology: but people have been using 'synthetic' organisms like chickens, macaroni wheat, and dogs, for a very long time. (February 14, 2014; November 22, 2013)

Not everybody has been up to speed with genetic technologies. Laban, son of Nahor, for example, probably wouldn't have agreed to Jacob's suggested wages if he'd known more about sheep. (Genesis 30:31-34)

I think technology, old or new, can be dangerous: if we aren't careful. But we've learned how to live with fire, chickens, and telephones. I think we'll keep learning.


2. Yamnaya, Yamna; and 'There Goes the Neighborhood,' 4,500 Years Back

(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("By 5,000-6,000 years ago, Europeans were a two-way mix of indigenous hunters and Near Eastern farmers"
(BBC News))
"Genomes document ancient mass migration to Europe"
BBC News (March 2, 2015)

"DNA analysis has revealed evidence for a massive migration into the heartland of Europe 4,500 years ago.

"Data from the genomes of 69 ancient individuals suggest that herders moved en masse from the continent's eastern periphery into Central Europe.

"These migrants may be responsible for the expansion of Indo-European languages, which make up the majority of spoken tongues in Europe today.

"An international team has published the research in the journal Nature....

"...Their analyses show that 7,000-8,000 years ago, a closely related group of early farmers moved into Europe from the Near East, confirming the findings of previous studies....

"...Eventually, the two groups mixed, so that by 5,000-6,000 years ago, the farmers' genetic signature had become melded with that of the indigenous Europeans...."
I'm particularly interested in this news, since my ancestors of a few centuries back came from northwestern Europe. This unfolding tale of hunters, farmers, and migration, is family history: prehistory, more precisely.

Apparently those two groups, the older hunter-gatherers and the newer farmers, weren't enough to explain "the genetic complexity of modern Europeans." That's why scientists were looking for a third group, added recently — comparatively speaking.

Professor David Riech's team say that the Yamnaya, who lived in what's now southern Russia back in the Bronze Age, are the most likely source for the third group.

I'm not sure, but my guess is that "Yamnaya" and "Yamna" are different versions of the same word — or what happened to Ямная, transliterated into our version of the Latin alphabet.

I've noticed little change in human nature since we started keeping records — and suspect that when those 'foreigners' moved into Europe, some 4,500 years ago, some folks were appalled.

Many obviously weren't, though: which is why I look the way I do.

Learning About Indo-European Languages

"...The scientists contend that a group similar to the Yamnaya moved into the European heartland after the invention of wheeled vehicles, contributing up to 50% of ancestry in some modern north Europeans. Southern Europeans on the whole appear to have been less affected by the expansion.

Even more intriguing is the possible link between this steppe expansion and the origins of Indo-European languages.

"Most indigenous European tongues, from English to Russian and Spanish to Greek, belong to the Indo-European group. The classification is based on shared features of vocabulary and grammar.

"Basque, spoken in south-west France and northern Spain, does not fit in this group, and may be the only surviving relic of earlier languages once spoken more widely...."
(BBC News)
Starting around the 16th century, Europeans visiting the Indian subcontinent noticed some words in the languages there sounded a lot like their European counterparts. A fairly famous example is reich, rex, and raj: all of which mean something like "king," "ruler," or "royal."

Professor Reich told BBC News that Iranian and Indian Indo-European languages spoken were probably already unlike the Yamnaya versions back when some Yamnaya apparently moved west.

I gather that most of what we know about the Indo-European languages comes from reverse-engineering today's languages, and I'm drifting off-topic.

One thing's for sure: folks who lived back then won't be telling us what happened.

3. Another Uniquely-Human 'Brain' Gene

(© MPI f. Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, via Max Plank Institute, used w/o permission.)
("This picture shows a cerebral cortex of an embryonic mouse. The cell nuclei are marked in blue and the deep-layer neurons in red. The human-specific gene ARHGAP11B was selectively expressed in the right half of the brain, which is visible by the folding of the neocortical surface." (MPI f. Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics))
"A gene for brain size - only found in humans"
Following the traces of evolution: Max Planck Researchers find a key to the reproduction of brain stem cells
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, München (February 26, 2015)

"About 99 percent of human genes are shared with chimpanzees. Only the small remainder sets us apart. However, we have one important difference: The brain of humans is three times as big as the chimpanzee brain. During evolution our genome must have changed in order to trigger such brain growth. Wieland Huttner, Director and Research Group Leader a the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics (MPI-CBG), and his team identified for the first time a gene that is only present in humans and contributes to the reproduction of basal brain stem cells, triggering a folding of the neocortex. The researchers isolated different subpopulations of human brain stem cells and precisely identified, which genes are active in which cell type. In doing so, they noticed the gene ARHGAP11B: it is only found in humans and in our closest relatives, the Neanderthals and Denisova-Humans, but not in chimpanzees. This gene manages to trigger brain stem cells to form a bigger pool of stem cells. In that way, during brain development more neurons can arise and the cerebrum can expand. The cerebrum is responsible for cognitive functions like speaking and thinking..."
It's hardly surprising that about 99 percent of our genes are in chimps, too. A sizable fraction of our genes are in most animals.

An example — Drosophilidae, a family of flies; zebrafish; and humans; all use the PAX6 gene to grow retinas. (January 9, 2015)

Life's molecular machinery is highly modular, which is why we can patch code from bacteria into tobacco plants and potatoes: letting the plants produce their own pesticides. (February 6, 2015; January 9, 2015; December 26, 2014)

Like any other technology, gene splicing isn't "safe," in the sense that bad things won't happen if we don't use our brains. Rocks can crush fingers; and we still have occasional trouble with fire, after upwards of a million years' experience. (May 9, 2014; April 27, 2014)

"Pinky and the Brain" — and Autopsies

I'm not worried that mad scientists will create a mouse with The Brain's desire for world domination.

Rewiring a mouse's brain with a human gene may be an effective way to tell exactly what ARHGAP11B does. I don't doubt that we learned quite a bit from that experiment.

I'm also sure that the researchers meant well but good intentions don't change what's ethical and what's not. (Catechism, 1759)

I am, however, a bit concerned about a mouse with human genes: and hope that the human cerebrum tissue's donor was already dead; or that the sample was too small to matter.

Autopsies are okay, by the way, for legal investigations and scientific research. So are organ transplants and donating organs. (Catechism, 2296, 2301)

We're expected to make sure the subject is dead first, though: and killing someone for their organs is strictly against the rules. (Catechism, 2268-2269; "Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions," 35, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (September 8, 2008))

Recognizing that ethics apply in scientific research, and everything else we do, is a far cry from feeling that autopsies are morally wrong: or that thinking is a sin. (November 21, 2014)

I've talked about Christianity's attitude studying nature, Herophilus of Chalcedon, English history, and getting a grip, before. (August 15, 2014)

Safflowers, Ethics, and Doing Our Job

Making "artificial" insulin sounds like a good idea. It could make insulin more readily available to folks who need it.

Putting human DNA into safflowers resulted in plants that produce human insulin. It's a remarkable achievement: but probably a bad idea. (February 14, 2014)

This isn't a knee-jerk rejection of science and other newfangled ideas. The problem is that humans are people, and safflowers aren't.

The last I heard, making a critter that's not human — but has a substantial amount of human DNA — is "an offense against the dignity of human beings." ("Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions")

Whether that principle applies to safflowers with just enough human genes to produce insulin, or mice with the ARHGAP11B gene, I don't know.

Again: Part of our job is taking care of this astounding creation: studying it and developing new tools. Science and technology are part of being human. It's what we do. (Genesis 1:27-31; Catechism, 31, 355-361, 374-379)

More-or-less-related posts:


Brigid said...

Something weird happened to your m-dash: "We've been doing that for &mdash a very long time"

Odd punctuation here: "is a metaphor in Romans 11:19-24: but those verses"

Wouldn't a comma make more sense? "of "domesticated" animals as "GMOs:" but today's cattle are" and "We're developing new technology: but people"

Sort of a stutter: " noticed that some words in the languages there had words that sounded"

A little grammar glitch: "hope that researchers got the human cerebrum tissue's donor was already dead"

There's more space between these paragraphs than the others: "ks who need it.

Putting human DNA into safflowers"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...

Oops. Thanks, Brigid. Found and - for the most part - fixed.

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