This is Comforting or Terrifying – Which Depends on You #Genetics #science #people #research #why

model of a DNA moleculeYou’re a sane, rational person with a mind of your own. Sure, your genes may determine how tall you are or whether you can taste PTC (you did that test with PTC papers on your parents and siblings for high school science class, didn’t you?)

But surely, your tastes in foods come from your sophisticated lifestyle. And your taste in politicians from a hard-nosed study of facts and social morality.


Our actions are governed by hidden biological forces—which is to say that we have little or no control over our personal tastes. Our behaviors and preferences are profoundly influenced by our genetic makeup, by factors in our environment that affect our genes, and by other genes forced into our systems by the innumerable microbes that dwell inside us.

You and I are a couple of meat robots. We are our genes, but not in the old nature versus nurture dichotomy. It’s complicated. Our environment effects how our genes operate, and environment includes the microbes that call our bodies home. I love this quote*:

Genes are the piano keys, but the environment plays the song.

Nature and nurture are thoroughly intertwined.

Even in politics, genetics is close to your decisions. Do your neurotransmitters reward novelty? You’re more likely to be liberal. Is the amygdala structure of your brain relatively large? You’re more likely to be conservative.

That’s what I learned, and it leaves me with the question of, how much of me is my choice? My fault? Maybe I shouldn’t have laughed at you.

Genetics don’t mean I inevitably hunker down in a foxhole with my genetic friends and prepare to do battle with everyone else. Most of these statements come with qualifiers: More likely, tend to, generally.

Book Cover - non-fiction - Pleased To Meet Me

This is Bill Sullivan’s new non-fiction book – looks like an interesting read.

If you ever took one of the popular people-sorting personality tests like Meyers-Briggs, you know there’s a benefit to understanding that other people are not being stupid or malicious when they see the world differently. They can be valuable teammates who spot problems and opportunities you overlook.

Besides, you also have that big wad of gray matter in your brain that lets you think about things. Learning is part of the environment. So step outside your foxhole with hope. It takes a little effort to keep an open mind, but it also helps you keep an open heart.

Thanks to Bill Sullivan, professor of pharmacology and microbiology at the Indiana University School of Medicine, for the lovely quote above (*) and for his article.


You’re a Mutant and it Gets Worse Every Day – Here’s How #biology #gene #radioactive #DNA #Asimov

DNA structure

DNA, just peppered with carbon atoms

Does the thought of mutations in your DNA (and other bits of your body’s cells) scare you? Do you worry about toxins, or GMOs, or species-hopping viruses? Cancer, or growing a second head? Here’s something that may terrify you. Or, since it happens every day and you’re not dead yet, maybe comfort you.

Here’s how you mutate. Your body contains a lot of carbon. This is such a basic fact that to say a chemical is organic means it contains carbon atoms in its molecules. Your DNA, the genetic blueprint that pilots your cells through life, contains carbon atoms.

Not likely!

Carbon, like many elements, exists in different forms called isotopes. Mostly we have carbon-12, but a fraction of all carbon is carbon-14, which is radioactive. When it decays (that is, releases a sub-atomic particle or energy from its nucleus), it transmogrifies into a different element, nitrogen.

Isaac Asimov once estimated that this transmogrification happens roughly six times a second somewhere in the DNA in your body, every second of every day, throughout your life. I’m way too lazy to check his figures, but whatever the rate, it happens. Every one of these events mutates the DNA where it occurred. A lot of the mutations will be in body cells, and some will be in sperm or eggs (reproductive cells.) A mutation might kill the cell, cause cancer, get passed on to offspring, or do nothing discernable.

So, you are a mutant. So am I. And we’re still alive. Do you feel better? Or worse?

BTW: Carbon-14 is created in Earth’s atmosphere every day by a natural process. Cosmic radiation strikes our planet from every direction, and it includes sub-atomic particles known as neutrons. Occasionally a neutron strikes a nitrogen atom. Our atmosphere is roughly 75% nitrogen, so this is no surprise.

The neutron reshuffles nitrogen’s nucleus and transforms it to carbon-14, which is radioactive and so decays back to nitrogen. It takes 5,700 years for half of a given amount of C-14 to decay, but it happens at a steady rate. The entire process happens at a steady rate and the C-14 way up high mixes into the air down low that we breathe, so the amount of C-14 in the body of any living organism stays constant until it stops breathing (or otherwise respiring). Then radioactive decay depletes the body of C-14. This is the basis of carbon-14 dating, which you may have heard of.

BTW2: Asimov’s book is old – published in 1988 – but still worth reading. He covers a lot of history and basic science. New discoveries seldom change what we know about the basics, like radioactive decay.

Revealed – Truth Is, Zebras Don’t Have Stripes on Skin – is that Weird or Not? #nature #biology #animals #genetics


Taken by Muhammad Mahdi Karim

This may not be the most important piece of news, but zebras are solid black under their striped coat.

 Skin color and hair color are controlled by different genes, hormones, and other factors, says Barsh, who studies the genetics of animal color patterns… citing domestic cats, domestic dogs, horses, zebras, and cheetahs as examples. nationalgeographic

I know that’s true with my llamas. Now, tell the truth. You’re about to go brush the hair backwards on your dog or cat to check, aren’t you? Go ahead! Be a citizen scientist.

Physics & Biology Helped Us Evolve #science #cancer #NASA #Earth #Mars @MarsOneProject

Sixteen cells working together as a species of algae

Sixteen cells working together as a species of algae

For three billion years, life on Earth consisted of single celled organisms. That was so soon after the planet cooled, it leads some scientists to believe life may be common in the universe. Then 800 million years ago, multicellular life burst on the scene and rapidly evolved. Since it took so long to make the multicellular leap, some scientists believe this sort of advanced life may be rare.

Individual cells started grouping up. They collaborated, differentiated, grew in size and ability. Some sacrificed themselves for the good of the many. Compared to the long, dull years of single-celled living, the resulting diversification barely took any time at all. Before long the world was full of trilobites and anenomes, then fish, ferns, pterodactyls, tyrannosaurs, bees, whales, cacti, kangaroos, not to mention us.

Biology: why did life change? How?

A single gene, called RB, studied in a sixteen-cell species of green algae may explain cells banding together into more complex creatures – and may also explain why some cancers grow in us today. Thanks to mutations in the gene, RB can cause cells to clump together into altruistic colonies, or cells in us to selfishly run wild.

Ironically, cancer may be the price we pay for existing at all.

But complex life needed more than variations of RB to evolve.

Physics: life needed Earth to change
RB may have launched complex creatures more than once before our ancestors lasted long enough to evolve.

Scientists think that until 500 million years ago, life on Earth fell victim to high-energy blasts from the sun, [the early sun produced a lot more cell-killing gamma, ultraviolet and x-rays than it does today.] The atmosphere then was too thin to fully protect our single-celled ancestors, whose DNA would have been damaged by such powerful rays. That kept them from becoming more complex.

As the early Earth cooled, heavy metals sunk to the center. Still very hot but now under extreme pressure, the inner core solidified and spun inside the still-molten outer core.

Bingo! A strong magnetic field was generated, deflecting radiation and protecting the atmosphere from being stripped away. Combined with an aging, more-sedate sun, cells were no longer regularly smashed back to their simplest forms.

The details are hard to pin down and studies will continue. “The origin of life remains one of most challenging themes in science.” And, I might add, one of the most fascinating.

Poor dead Mars
The failure to form a proper dynamo of solid inner core and molten outer core may help explain why Mars lost its early atmosphere and has essentially no magnetic field. Perhaps the planet was just too small to manage the trick – Mars is only half the diameter of Earth. The combination makes Mars a hostile planet for life. Whether life ever started there is unknown, and the chance life persists if it did once gain a toehold is unlikely, but NASA and others are working to find out.

Colonize Mars with scifi
The combination also makes Mars a difficult place for us to consider GLORY Ebook 300 dpi (200x300)colonizing, but from NASA to Mars One, people are ready to go. For now, you can only travel to Mars in your imagination – or in mine! Check out my scifi On Mars series at Amazon or your favorite on-line retailer. Tragedy and despair follow the first colonists to Mars, but exploration, optimism, and love await them too. With a clue to survival from a cat! Read today. Or, as we say on Mars, tosol.

Thanks to Washington Post here and here for stories and quotations.

Our Destiny Tied to the Wonderful Desert Watermelon #poem #poetry #evolution #nature #middleeast #watermelon


licensed at 2.0

Wild in the deserts
Of Egypt and Sudan,
Grows hard and bitter fruit
Called gurma in that land.

Harvested and hoarded
Somewhere in the shade,
It holds a fount of water
In green flesh that it made.

Water for dry seasons,
Water kept in storage,
Water for a Pharaoh’s Ba
On his celestial voyage.

The fibrous fruit was pounded,
So juices bound would flow.
A gift to desert dwellers
Five millennia ago.

From one gene only, dominant,
Its bitter taste was made,
So when recessive flowers met
The bitterness did fade.

Melons bearing yellow flesh,
By Common Era’s time,
Rabbis grouped with grapes and figs
As sweet within the rind.

The gene for sugar links with red,
Though DNA was not yet spelled,
Medieval farmers bred
A fruit fit for angels.


A related wild species in the Kalahari desert

Ruby slabs of watermelon
Decorate my table,
While in the wild deserts
Its ancestral stock is stable.

Civilization could collapse,
There could be Armageddon.
But in five thousand years,
Our Kin could once again
Have watermelon.

Thanks to And thanks to Mark Twain for writing that watermelon is what the angels eat.

EBOOK COVER R&R3 (199x300)All my books, including collections of my science-inspired poetry, are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, and other major online retailers. You’ll also find paperbacks at Create Space and all major digital formats at Smashwords. Read one today.


Michael Crichton’s Shuffled Deck of a Story #ScienceFiction #Book #review

NextI’ve done a series of posts to look at how popular science fiction books relate to standard writing advice. This post will look at a popular author, Michael Crichton, and one of his novels that gets mixed reviews: Next.

The edition I checked on Amazon had an impressive 599 reviews:

  • 18% five stars
  • 18% four stars
  • 22% three stars
  • 23% two stars
  • 19% one star
  • as always on Amazon, some poor reviews reflect delivery problems and not the content

Averaging just under three stars (which means 58% of reviewers didn’t hate it), this is a surprisingly mixed set of reviews for a popular author. It also surprised me that the book made the New York Times Bestseller list, though that may simply reflect Crichton’s overall popularity.

I wonder if Next was perhaps an experiment in formatting. It feels like a collection of short stories that Crichton split into parts and shuffled together like a deck of cards. The stories are united by the field of genetics and most have overlapping characters. There are tales of body snatching, poaching, living art, bounty hunters, and illegal research; along with cheating spouses and lawyers. Crichton inserted short faux newspaper articles about genetics and the ethical dilemmas the field creates – the ultimate “data dump.” He even completed one storyline with a short faux article to simply tell what happened to the character.

Crichton introduces new characters and storylines throughout most of the book. As the main stories resolve towards the end, an exciting action-packed cliff-hanger in one chapter is followed by a judge explaining legal issues in the next chapter. There were three or four stories I liked and I found myself flipping past chapters to get to the next installment of the story I wanted to read.

Crichton pulls a lot of the storylines together at the end, but I think the book would have worked better for me as a straightforward collection of short stories.

Amazon reviewers who liked the book were fascinated by the world of genetics [“fantastic premise… terrifying implications” says Jennifer Sicurella] and enjoyed the complicated cast of characters. One found Next to be humorous and was “amazed that people didn’t get the joke. This was satire!” [Sally Forth]

Those who did not like the book found it confusing, an “extended info-dump” (though that is Crichton’s trademark) or thought the transgenic animals were implausible. (Personally, I liked the animals better than the human characters.) Apparently Crichton named a disreputable character after a real-life person he dislikes. (I’d expect a traditional publisher to edit that out.)

The book seems to have a message or agenda about the genetics industry. Whether you find the message a useful warning or fear-mongering probably depends more on you than on the book.

Reading Next leaves me with some interesting questions. Once an author becomes famous, will they continue to sell large numbers of books no matter what? For how long?

New authors, like me, wish readers would take a chance on an unfamiliar name.

Click to see my books – colonize the solar system!

The used hardback copy of Next I picked up for $1 at my Friends of the Library sale was listed at $27.95 USA – quite an investment. Maybe inexpensive e-books will allow readers to try unknown authors, but Amazon advertises various editions of Next from $12 to 1¢. (I assume the 1¢ doesn’t include shipping – lol.)

Oh, and by the way – I think the cover art for Next is pitiful. Clearly, all the publisher needed to do was print Crichton’s name in big letters. Maybe that answers my questions.