Category Archives: Biology

Get off my GM lawn!

I have a habit of going to parties every now and then. While mingling about with a crowd of strangers, conversations come to a certain denouement of a question, which should not be the prelude to an abruptly concluded conversation. I am asked, “What did you major in?” and my reply is “Biochemistry.” Quickly now, my conversational partners must excuse themselves. “Oh I really must get a drink.” they say waving a full glass in the air. I was wondering what about this simple statement made me so repellent, however I think I may have figured it out.

I just read a few articles today about the Enviropig™ a pig developed around 2004 that  was genetically modified to produce the enzyme phytase so that it may break down phytic acid (found in pig feed) and utilize the phosphorus rather than passing it though to it’s feces where the phosphorus escapes into the surrounding environment and causes harmful algal blooms and other environmental treacheries. This engineering trick would reduce the amount of phosphorus found in pig feces at a significant rate compared to unmodified pigs.

Fast forward to April 2012, ten generations into research and design of these pigs and the project has been put on ice. Pressure from activist groups has lead to a predicament: no company will brave bringing these pigs to market. I stumbled onto the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network’s site and read a little about their attitude. Which I found a bit off putting. On their site they state that “there is already the cost-effective, simple technological fix of a phytase supplement that can be added to hog feed.” This language particularly irks me out.

The word “technological” should read “bio-technological.”  The fact is that the phytase enzyme which farmers would add to pig feed requires Genetically Modified yeast strains or other biotech production methods in order to be produced in massive quantities. On top of this their website cites no true reason why the Enviropig™ should not be allowed to enter the market besides the fact that this network of people are scared of something that is unfamiliar to them.

It really makes me wonder why people don’t seem to be too concerned about receiving help from transgenic organisms to craft our cheese (Chymosin), fight diabetes (Insulin), or cause our pigs to shit out less phosphorus via supplementation (phytase). To just modify the pig, we have shut down a manufacturing plant in favor of a living solution!

In the NY Times article I linked above, Dr. Cecil Forsberg is quoted as saying “It’s time to stop the program until the rest of the world catches up…And it is going to catch up.” This was a bit soothing to me. It helped me to really understand that there is still a majority of the population which opposes and is scared of the genetic modification of most organisms. This is why people run away from me after I announce an interest in Biochemistry at parties.

It’s not such a small world after all

[I’d prefer if you listened to “The green grass grew all around” as you read this.]

First: Above you see a picture of miner’s lettuce, Claytonia perfoliata. I’ve always thought of the flower as white, so I was surprised to see how inattentive I’ve been to the little one! I’ve been working on a research project for my Biochemistry class, and it’s a lot of work for 4 credits, let me tell you. I’ve spent the past few weeks chipping away at journal articles on the nature of a tritrophic interaction between a virus, a fungus, and a plant (grass) in geothermally heated soil. It got me thinking about a song which I learned as a child, “The green grass grew all around.” The nature of the song is repetitive, and the value of this, besides driving in how much one thing is inherently connected to another is the memory mnemonic. When we are children it seems to be a common pattern to learn repetitive songs. And I am willing to guess this is because it instills a framework for learning within us. If we repeat something many many times and even have fun with it,  we will better be able to recall it.  So I was thinking what’s another song that might get pounded into your head if you’ve been raised on Disney? The lyrics as follows have a nice sentiment, but the only way I can agree with the statement that “it’s a small world” is by looking so intensely at the things around me and acknowledging how they are large compilations of particulates that are individually smaller than my naked eye could detect…but that really just makes me think that the world is larger than I could EVER comprehend.

“It’s a world of laughter, a world or tears its a world of hopes, its a world of fear there’s so much that we share that its time we’re aware its a small world after all its a small world after all … There is just one moon and one golden sun And a smile means friendship to everyone. Though the mountains divide And the oceans are wide It’s a small small world”

I believe that we as people have some basic shared emotions. I don’t think we all experience or deal with them in the same way. The idea that there is just one moon is a small world mindset which no one should believe. It’s like saying the earth is flat. There are MANY moons, they are just not so close to earth. When we smile in response to another smile it is a reflexive imitation of the smile that we just saw. This is a way that we can try on another persons skin and then make a decision on whether or not the face that was just flashed at us was legitimate or a cover up for some other emotion.

Are there any songs you’ve learned in childhood that have just stuck with you?

Considering Learning

At times, when I play witness to something beautiful, I simply want to spend time knowing the individual components of it. The wicked truth of the matter is that this can not be done without divorcing the intimately entwined parts. Shortly after snapping this photo montage on the microscope I took a razor blade and sliced through the ovary, gaining new perspective on the prismatic fibers of  that which is unknown to me. I am not the first to come this way, nor will I be the last. Any one have any pointers on histology technique?

I’ve been thinking a little about this; the taking apart and how it might work in learning. In my intro to statistics class, the assignments take no more than an hour for me to complete.The professor is wary about discussing theory in class, but his mechanical introductions are (overly) patient and methodical. The value of the course is in gaining confidence and growing vocabulary for clearly reporting data.  The confidence from standing firm in an answer as you are quadruple challenged feels good, but shallow. The unfortunate side to this method is that there is no exploration into why we are doing what we do. It would be as if mathematics were truly discrete and all the rules already written. If we stopped to ask; if we were challenged to make our own formulas; we may be humbled in new ways.

On the opposite side, in Organic Chemistry and Biology, I skipped the expected prerequisites for the courses that I have been taking for the past year so that I could graduate with a study Depth that approximates “Biochemistry”…one gets easily side tracked at this school. Infiltrating the class as a writer has been challenging, but I’m a chameleon, so it’s worked out more or less to the extent I’ve expected. I don’t know a lot of things that other people do who have had let’s say 1-50 years of experience on me, but I’m mixing into the average. It takes me a long time to do my work, and often I have no driving force to really do it. This is because I need to make up for vast knowledge gaps which are not readily apparent. Here, when I am challenged, I am often quite happy to yield to opposing suggestions. I am still, after many months, afraid to speak up because I might reveal how unprepared I truly am. Here is an xkcd comic for the occasion.

Going to Seed

How often do you look at a blade of grass and comment on how beautiful the flowers are? Do you even notice the flowers? Is this even grass or is it a sedge? In the above photo you may notice stigma and some of those stigma are holding onto grains of pollen. (You may also notice some errors in focus, I’m sorry this is a montage of roughly 20 different photos.) Had I not killed this grass to take a picture of it, a seed would eventually be formed. To be honest, I’ve never payed much mind to grass in flower. It truly is breathtaking to think of this structure and it’s intricate/elegant function. How rare it is to stop and look!

So today was a special day. Besides the fact that I had a chunk of time to play around with a nifty microscope. I also got to learn a little about this school’s faculty recruiting process. Thai food dinner with a select few lovers of literature was gorgeous and inspiring. It made me ask, “Where has all my writing gone?”

Don’t get me wrong, I regret none of my kaleidoscopic life experiences.

(Where have all the flowers gone?)