What is a gene?

I remember one of the first biology-based debates I found myself in was in some random message board devoted to music. I can’t for the life of me remember what the board was, and I doubt it still exists today anyway, but I recall music being central to what brought me there. Of course, there were plenty of other subjects up for discussion at this place and in its various forums, and that led me into some useless debate with a racist metal head. (I’m sure his racism and affinity for metal were quite independent of each other.) He was making some claim about black people and intelligence, and he kept referencing some gene he seemed convinced proved his point. This was probably well over 15 years ago, so I don’t recall many of the specifics, but I do recall not really knowing what a gene was, so it was difficult to counter him effectively. I tried looking it up, but there really weren’t any easy-to-digest answers for someone who didn’t know what to look for in the first place. And, of course, this was a bit before the days of YouTube (and Wikipedia was in its infancy). Fortunately, for better or worse, the Internet is a far different place today. As such, I wanted to post a YouTube video I found in the hope that any person who finds himself in a similar situation to mine from years past would be able to gain a quick understanding of what a gene is. There’s a certain type of person who loves to use science to justify a belief he would hold no matter what, and relatively-educated racists are among them. Here’s the short video:


A victory for science at the Supreme Court

In the most “duh” decision in who knows how long, the Supreme Court ruled today that large, profit-driven corporations (or anyone, for that matter) cannot patent naturally occurring genes:

Pronouncing what may seem like a patent truism, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Thursday that biotech researchers have to create something to get monopoly protection to study and apply the phenomenon. Because Myriad Genetics, Inc., “did not create anything,” the Court struck down its patent on isolating human genes from the bloodstream, unchanged from their natural form. Because Myriad did create a synthetic form of the genes, however, that could be eligible for a patent, the Court concluded.

The decision was a major blow to a company that believed it had a right to be the sole user and analyst of two human genes that show a high risk, for women found to have them in their blood, of breast and ovarian cancer.

This is a huge win for science, future research, and, frankly, human lives. Aside from the obvious dubiousness of patenting something that isn’t man-made, it was unconscionably unethical for Myriad Genetics to pursue this case at all. They should feel nothing but shame and moral grief at the human life they were inherently putting at risk. This was a rare excellent decision from the SCOTUS. (Surprisingly, they didn’t randomly and arbitrarily decide, for no discernible reason whatsoever, to also declare that any of the genes involved were people.)

BRCA1 and BRCA2 patents struck down

For years private companies have been putting patents on your genes. In fact, roughly 1/5 of human genes has been patented. This potentially has huge ramifications as it can restrict research abilities to one company or at least make others wary of future pursuits. Fortunately, a federal judge has struck down much of this practice.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet challenging whether anyone can hold patents on human genes was expected to have broad implications for the biotechnology industry and genetics-based medical research.

Sweet said he invalidated the patents because DNA’s existence in an isolated form does not alter the fundamental quality of DNA as it exists in the body nor the information it encodes.

He rejected arguments that it was acceptable to grant patents on DNA sequences as long as they are claimed in the form of “isolated DNA.”

The specific genes this primarily affects are the BCRA1 and BRCA2 genes, both tumor suppressors. (That means damage to these genes can quickly lead to cancer.) These are highly important areas of research which women cannot afford to have restricted to one company. The ruling will surely be appealed, but it is encouraging to see the case go in this direction.

Your genes, sleep, fruit flies, mice, and Palin

Despite the fact that she is a whiny, genuinely stupid quitter, Sarah Palin has been popping up all over the place lately. Most recently she has been spouting off some garbage that Obama wants to set up a “death panel” in the health care bill. In truth, the bill calls for discussing one’s living will (and related concerns) with a doctor, should one choose to do that. This serves to better protect the interests of the patient. Such a measure could have avoided that whole Terri Schiavo fiasco. But, again, Palin is genuinely stupid. She never knows what’s going on. She makes this clear – literally – every single time she publicly speaks. She was especially clear when she said some remarkably stupid things about fruit fly research during the campaign season. I mention all this because of some recent research which relied on fruit flies*, and which can have a direct impact on the health of people.

Scientists have discovered the first gene involved in regulating the optimal length of human sleep, offering a window into a key aspect of slumber, an enigmatic phenomenon that is critical to human physical and mental health.

The article is well worth the read, and will probably give a fuller picture than I’m going to give. It’s all about a gene which has some seemingly minor variations, yet these variations (alleles) can drastically affect the health of the carrier.

The researchers found that mutated versions of the gene can affect the time some people go to bed, wake up, and how well they physically, emotionally, and mentally perform throughout the day. For instance, most people need roughly 8 hours of sleep a night, but one gene variant allows some to get back on 6 hours while not experiencing adverse consequences to their health.

And of course, this research was possible due to the contributions of various mice and fruit flies. When researchers would find a particular variant of this gene, they would ‘tinker’ with the same gene in these test subjects and measure the effects. One finding was that genetically engineered mice would compensate far less for sleep deprivation than would the control mice.

It isn’t clear yet exactly what it is about this gene (DEC2) which triggers the change in sleep need, but it may be that it makes protein transcription weaker, but other explanations are possible until more research is done.

*What genetic research doesn’t rely on fruit flies these days?

Genes and intelligence

More Evidence That Intelligence Is Largely Inherited: Researchers Find That Genes Determine Brain’s Processing Speed

In a study published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience, UCLA neurology professor Paul Thompson and colleagues used a new type of brain-imaging scanner to show that intelligence is strongly influenced by the quality of the brain’s axons, or wiring that sends signals throughout the brain. The faster the signaling, the faster the brain processes information. And since the integrity of the brain’s wiring is influenced by genes, the genes we inherit play a far greater role in intelligence than was previously thought.

What the study found was that myelin thickness corresponds to intelligence. That is, the more fatty covering of the axons in your brain, the more intelligent you are likely to be. And because myelin thickness is genetically linked, intelligence has a genetic link.

What’s important to remember here is that intelligence isn’t soley about genetics. We are not our genes. Environmental influences are still overwhelmingly strong in determining intelligence. Take the South. I doubt there’s really such a large contingent of people with thin myelin gathered below the Mason-Dixon line. It’s more likely a lack of education funding and general principles praising intellectual achievement (see last 50 thousand election cycles, especially the last three national elections).

Because the myelination of brain circuits follows an inverted U-shaped trajectory, peaking in middle age and then slowly beginning to decline, Thompson believes identifying the genes that promote high-integrity myelin is critical to forestalling brain diseases like multiple sclerosis and autism, which have been linked to the breakdown of myelin.

Weird how science does good things.

Solid Argument

This is from a bigoted article by Gerald Christian Nordskog, with Dr. Ted Baehr and Dr. Tom Snyder. The bigotry isn’t particular important (or well constructed). The interesting piece is when these mooks try to venture beyond their expertise of hate-mongering.

Most homosexuals seem to have adopted an irrational, unscientific view of the now defunct evolutionary model. They fail to realize, however, that, if evolution were really true (which it isn’t), there actually wouldn’t be any human homosexuals in the world. Why? Because, according to evolutionary theory, nature would have “selected out” over time, by the so-called “natural selection” evolution process, any truly genetic homosexual tendency because homosexual people do not procreate, or create any descendents. Thus, their deviant tendencies would have been eliminated from the gene pool by the untenable methodology of evolution.

No biologist is going to claim there is a gene which determines sexual preference. That isn’t how genetics work. Although studies have been conducted which have found that the genetic marker Xq28 conveys a tendency toward homosexuality, there is nothing that says homosexuality is deterministic. In fact, that study is far from solid but if it were true, it still wouldn’t say homosexuality is deterministic. This is essentially the problem encountered (unwittingly) by these bigots.

I may have a gene which gives me a predisposition to strong muscles around my shoulders. That doesn’t mean I’m going to be a great pitcher for the 2013 Boston Red Sox. It doesn’t even mean I would necessarily even have a chance at making it into an Independent League. Most genes have some degree – often a high one – of interaction with environmental conditions. This is why there is no “gay” gene(s) – and just the same, this is why there is no “straight” gene(s).

But just to be antagonistic toward these bigots, one possible way a gene which gives a predispotion (though not determinism!) toward homosexuality can be maintained in a gene pool is through sexually antagonistic selection.

The results of this model show the interaction of male homosexuality with increased female fecundity within human populations, in a complex dynamic, resulting in the maintenance of male homosexuality at stable and relatively low frequencies, and highlighting the effects of heredity through the maternal line.

These findings provide new insights into male homosexuality in humans. In particular, they promote a focus shift in which homosexuality should not be viewed as a detrimental trait (due to the reduced male fecundity it entails), but, rather, should be considered within the wider evolutionary framework of a characteristic with gender-specific benefits, and which promotes female fecundity. This may well be the evolutionary origin of this genetic trait in human beings.

Bigotry never wins.