Web of life: The world from the perspective of a gene

I decided to upload the slides from a presentation I gave today. I’m sharing this for educational use only.

Web of Life (Human Genetics Seminar, 26 November 2013)

It might not make a huge amount of sense all by itself but, if there is a demand, I might write out the presentation as a separate post.

SASHG & YRF 2013 conference

The large gap in posting at the beginning of October was due to the Southern African Society of Human Genetics (SASHG) 2013 conference and the associated Young Researchers’ Forum (YRF), the latter for students and postdocs. This saw me travelling north to Johannesburg for just under a week to see what was happening in the world of South African genetics and to present my own work at both the YRF and SASHG conference. There was far too much to go into detail for so I will just focus on a couple of highlights. Continue reading

Quicklink: Shareefa Dalvie on ENCA

I’m going away for a few days but I’ll share this. As I mentioned before, one of my fellow lab members, Shareefa Dalvie, was involved in the sequencing of the first human genome done on African soil. You can watch a short insert on this on the ENCA website. There was another interview that focussed on her specifically but it doesn’t appear to be available online. This is part of her PhD work to understand the genetic causes of bipolar disorder.

Quicklinks: Science

I’ll start with a link that claims dolphins are unexceptional! This article is based on a book that looks at the claims made about dolphin intelligence. I do think they are particularly intelligent so it might be worth buying if I happen to see it.

Also in the ocean is this interesting report of a mutant lobster, now heading to the Maine State Acquarium. It seems to have too many claws on one of it’s arms, however PZ Meyers takes exception to referring to them as claws. I don’t know enough about lobsters to comment but it’s unusual and interesting. It’s unusually interesting.

Cheetah (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

There’s an encouraging story here about using dogs to keep cheetahs away from livestock in Namibia. This decreases the conflicts between cheetahs and farmers, which is important as they are endangered. When I was younger I had the opportunity to stroke a live cheetah at Cheetah Outreach. They have since relocated but it’s still possible to visit and meet cheetahs in the flesh.

I’m a big fan of open source technology. I do think it is the best direction for us and this is an encouraging example of what it can accomplish. A South African man who lost part of his hand learned how to make his own prosthetic with a 3D printer and has released the plans for anyone to use. This drops the cost of a prosthetic hand from US$10 000 to US$500!

The final story is close to home. One of my lab members, Shareefa Dalvie, has had one of her samples be the first human genome sequenced on African soil! This is a huge achievement for genetics, the University of Cape Town and the University of Stellenbosch. Large sequencing projects like this are the future for genetics research and can help us understand the causes of many diseases. In this case, it should bring us closer to understanding the genetic underpinnings of bipolar disorder.

Quicklinks: GMOs

I happened to find a number of stories about genetically modified organisms this past week and thought they might be worth sharing. Not only have the early pioneers of GM plants been awarded the World Food Prize but the British government seems to be pushing strongly for GM crops. I think this is great. The technology can do amazing things, especially if we’re going to be facing issues with climate change.

There are many people who claim it’s not safe but there’s really no evidence of that. The technology itself should be safe and the few studies that claim it’s not are poorly designed. There’s a post on Science Based Medicine that looks at the many flaws with a recent study that claim GM crops are hazardous to our health.

There may be valid criticisms of the behaviour of some companies, like Monsanto, but that’s no reason to jettison the whole field of GMOs. If you think a company makes computers unnecessarily expensive or hard to use you wouldn’t tell people not to use computers, you would tell that company to change it’s practices. Similarly, if there’s a problem with the way GMO producers behave then it’s fine to focus on that but don’t make unscientific claims about how dangerous GMOs are.

Viruses and HGT

To me, perhaps the most interesting thing in evolution is horizontal gene transfer (HGT), also known as lateral gene transfer. Simply put HGT is the process where genes move between organisms in a manner different to being passed on from parent to child, vertical gene transfer.
For one thing it demonstrates that evolution is focused on the level of the gene, the premise of Dawkin’s book The Selfish Gene, because it shows that genes are able to move between genomes and organisms are just environments for them.
It’s also very different to the way we generally think of genes behaving and allows for far more evolutionary flexibility as genes are able to move between vastly different organisms, such as viruses and humans. As a normal part of their life cycle some viruses do insert their own DNA into our genomes. Usually, viruses are bad for us but that isn’t always the case and HGT can carry benefits. There is a piece by Carl Zimmer on The Loom describing how a gene acquired, multiple times, from viruses has become essential for placenta formation.