Posts byRachelBernstein

Another year, another controversy at Cal

Jasper Rine, the molecular and cell biology professor at the center of this debate, had no idea that his relatively simple project would ignite a firestorm of publicity and controversy that would eventually bring him head-to-head with the California Department of Public Health. His plan had been to provide a unifying experience for Cal’s incoming freshman class and teach them a little about understanding genetic data, by collecting some of their DNA and testing them for three simple genetic variants associated with the metabolism of alcohol, lactose, and folate.

Though scientifically very straight-forward, Rine and his co-planners knew that collecting genetic information can be a very sensitive issue, so they took a number of steps to ensure that safety and privacy concerns were met.

Genetically modified organisms? That’s old news

Would you be excited about a swiftly growing salmon that yields the same amount of flesh as a normal fish in half the time, yielding more product for less input and saving time, energy, and money? Great news: such fish already exist! But the producer, AquaBounty, faces major opposition in bringing them to market because they carry the dreaded label of “genetically modified.” (Their speedy development is thanks to the introduction of an extra gene for a growth hormone.)

Opponents have two main objections: the dangers of consuming engineered meat (shown to be minimal) and the potential environmental impact if the animals were released to the wild (a much more open question).

Genomic analysis can be powerful – in the right hands

You may have heard about the controversial genetics study connecting a set of 150 genetic markers to “exceptional longevity” (people living past 100). Everybody’s interested in living longer, so it’s not surprising that the work, published by Boston University researchers in July in the journal Science, was covered with much fanfare in many main-stream news outlets (for example, in the NY Times and Scientific American). Science even hosted a media teleconference to promote the story.


Brown pelicans and the oil spill

As of November 2009, Louisiana’s state bird, the brown pelican, was not an endangered species. The pelican population had dropped to a low of 10,000 birds in 1970, mostly due to the use of pesticides like DDT that weakened the eggshells so that they couldn’t support the embryos to maturity. But when the numbers rose to an estimated 650,000 birds last year, they were taken off the endangered species list. This was a conservation success story of the type that we rarely hear.

Now, in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill, the web is flooded with pictures of oil-logged brown pelicans, and conservationists fear that all their hard work will be wiped away by this one catastrophic event.