Weird pets

I was reading about the Canada lynx on Why Evolution is True and that got me thinking about all the weird pets people have.

First up are skunks. It’s unfortunately illegal to keep them as pets in some states (including Maine), but where it is legal, an owner can have their skunk’s scent glands removed so they don’t spray all over the place. They’re expensive to keep (needing a weird diet consisting of food better than what a lot of humans eat) and they’re apt to get into everything, but they’re known to be very friendly.

The closest I’ve come to a pet squirrel was one that used to come up to the porch for peanuts. Unlike all the other squirrels, he (or maybe she) wouldn’t run away when someone opened the door. He’d stick around, knowing food was likely coming his way. He stuck around for a few seasons, presumably dying two or three winters ago. (Squirrels can live up to 10 years in captivity, but tend towards 4 years in the wild.)

I don’t know much about raccoons, but the fact that they make me think of little train robbers when I see them forces me to include them.

The red fox is relatively commonly tamed. In fact, one well known experiment in Russia has consisted of researchers grouping individual red foxes by how friendly they are towards humans and then selectively breeding those individuals who display the most friendly tendencies. It has resulted in very dog-like animals; the foxes (now called the domesticated silver fox) wag their tails in excitement, whimper when left alone, and have lost their normal coloring pattern (the researchers did not select for color). Just like with all artificial selection, it’s a good example of evolution in action.

But even when decades of selection haven’t been taking place, the red fox still manages to be a decent, tamable pet.

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Letter to the editor correction

After butchering a previous letter to the editor I wrote, the Kennebec Journal has printed my correction.

On July 19, the Kennebec Journal ran a letter with my name as the author. Neither the title nor the edited content reflected what I had originally written.

The piece was titled “Irreparable harm to sciences if LePage is elected?” The substance of the letter did not make any such claim. Paul LePage will cause harm to science, but it will not be irreparable. Science is the best way of knowing we have; it can recover from an anti-science politician like LePage. It would just be preferable to avoid any harm in the first place.

Two paragraphs were edited to say “LePage seems to indicate he thinks public schools ought to teach creationism to children.” I stand by what I wrote: “Paul LePage thinks public schools ought to teach creationism to children.”

I used this wording because when asked in a debate if he believes in creationism and if he thinks it should be taught in schools LePage’s answer concluded, “I believe yes and yes.” My second paragraph compared LePage’s rationality to a common aquatic bird found on many Maine lakes.

The KJ has offered me this space so I may clarify the original letter. For that, I am thankful. But there is the much more important issue of LePage’s anti-science stances.

Any politician who rejects some fundamental aspect of any field of science based on religious belief is unqualified for any public leadership position.

Eliot Cutler, Kevin Scott and Shawn Moody have all voiced their support for the strong teaching of evolution in public schools. Libby Mitchell has not stated a position, but there is little doubt of her support for the fact of evolution. All are far better choices than LePage to lead Maine.

For those who haven’t read or don’t remember my first letter, that “common aquatic bird” is a loon. Personally I think I was being too generous.

Thought of the day

If it was up to the woo crowd, I wouldn’t have taken multiple vaccinations over the past several months. Not doing so would in turn prevent my trip to Tanzania.

Good thing I’m not hostile towards science.

Milky Way kicks out star for eternity

One of the fastest moving stars ever discovered is on its way out of the Milky Way, but Hubble can still see it.

Nasa’s Hubble Space Telescope has detected a rare hypervelocity star that was spat out of the centre of our galaxy and is travelling three times as fast as the Sun.

Scientists believe that it was created when three stars travelling together passed too close to the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way around a hundred million years ago.

One of the stars was captured while the other two were flung out of the galaxy and merged to form a super-hot blue star travelling at around 1.6 million miles per hour.

Creationist interpretation: a deceitful designer placed the star at a high velocity in just such a way that we would be tricked into thinking something plausible had happened instead.

Anyway.

Here are a couple images. The first is a NASA graphic while the second is the actual image.

Photolyase and cancer

Upon arriving at the beach yesterday, I lathered on the sun screen. Being relatively fair-skinned, I’ve learned my lesson in forgetting or not using enough of the stuff, and I wasn’t about to get all burned up. I don’t like eating lobster; I certainly don’t want to look like one.

But that isn’t the only reason I throw the stuff on so heavily. I’m also well aware of the tenacity and, if such a word is appropriate, vulgarity of cancer. Tanning is just a bad idea unless someone really wants to be diseased. It may look good (and not always), but I doubt that has ever brought solace to any cancer patients. Laying out in the sun without protection (as I saw a few people doing all day – it was at least 85 F, not a cloud in the sky) or jumping in one of those tanning cancer tubes is a sure-fire way to cause potentially deadly somatic cell mutations.

The way this works is that UV light slaps into the double helix structure of DNA causing an incorrect fusion in base pairs on the same side of the helix. Imagine – and apologies for the violence of it all – getting punched in the mouth. Instead of your teeth vertically matching as they do now (at least relatively), a couple teeth on the bottom row are now horizontal and facing each other. This calls for a dentist.

Different organisms have different mechanisms (dentists) for correcting damaged DNA. Naked mole rats, for example, have two genes for contact inhibition instead of the single gene virtually all other mammals have. This has resulted in no one ever recording an instance of cancer in the ugly little critters. If humans had this mechanism, cancer probably wouldn’t be nearly the problem it is.

Instead we get a number of repair mechanisms, chief among them base excision, nucleotide excision, and mismatch repair. (The mechanism in naked mole rats doesn’t repair mutated cells; it merely stops them from proliferating.) Unfortunately, the repair fidelity, just like the copying fidelity, of DNA is not perfect. Mistakes are made, mistakes are missed. We get cancer.

Part of our plight arises from something we’ve lost over evolutionary time. Most plants and other animals have a protein called photolyase which specifically seeks out UV damaged DNA.

Researchers at Ohio State University were recently able to observe exactly how photolyases perform their protective duty. The photolyase protein captures energy from visible light and uses it to project a single proton and a single electron towards a dimer in DNA. The two tiny particles then initiate a series of reactions that knock the contorted nucleotides back into place across the ladder, without needing to remove them like normal human proteins do. A proton and electron finally return to the photolyase protein, presumably so it can dash off to fix the next dimer it finds.

In other words, this dentist isn’t very gentle. He just punches your contorted teeth back into position. (Okay, it’s more elegant than that, but I had to finish the analogy.)

The article goes on to speculate as to the potential utilization of this protein in humans.

Given that photolyases were lost in evolution, it was possible that other proteins in the cell that allowed photolyases to do their job were also lost. But mice that were given the gene for the photolyase protein showed remarkable protection from UV damage. This means that in mice, the rest of the cellular infrastructure that photolyases need is still there. Chances are good that it’s there for humans as well.

There are other instances of mice being able to utilize genes not otherwise found in them, almost as if they’ve had them all along. For example, when injected with snippets of DNA for making red photo-pigment, normally dichromatic mice suddenly had trichromatic vision. This indicates an earlier evolved ability to see colors in the mammalian line that was later lost. In all likelihood, the appropriate gene(s) was probably just turned off out of a lack of need, leaving in place much of the cellular machinery needed to utilize red photo-pigment. I suspect the same is true with photolyase. If this can be extended to humans, a significant leap in the fight against many skin cancers may be on the horizon.

Here’s one I missed

Everyone knows Paul LePage is a huge liar. But still some people refuse to believe he wants creationism taught in schools. For Christ’s Sake.

Creationism: “Quite frankly, it’s a learning tool for our kids. I think we should teach them everything possible and let them make their own minds up on how they want to live their lives.”

There is no candidate more anti-science than Paul LePage.

Thought of the day

No scientist would ever reach the conclusions drawn by any religion if no religion ever existed.