01 April, 2009

Scientist Studies

Wow, this is really huge. John S. Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts reports on a paper that would rewrite the rulebook on evolutionary theory. It's not often, or ever, that you get to read about a change in a field so cataclysmic that it completely changes the outlook on a whole field, certainly not one so important or controversial as evolutionary theory.

If true, the theory of Empedoclean Evolution would totally discredit natural selection, in this Darwin anniversary year of all times. Professor Augustus P. Rillful's paper concerning the importance of horizontal transfer of genes (for example by viral and bacterial mechanisms) foreshadows a comprehensive understanding of all sides of speciation.

Looks like a Nobel-prizewinner, doesn't he?


Meanwhile, a couple of other interesting links I found in my morning perusal:

A really fascinating post at Genetic Future about the marketing strategy personal genomics company 23andMe are using. I've always really liked that name, incidentally. Their plan is to form a community of users based around their "mommy bloggers" who'll chat about pregnancy and kids. Daniel McArthur suggests mothers-to-be might graduate from comparing weight gains to genotypes, splashing out on DNA testing kits for their loved ones to determine how their offspring might turn out. It really could be a fantastic marketing masterstroke, making this information seem relevant to a big-spending demographic.

It hasn't gone down well with Steve Murphy "The Gene Sherpa," who highlights the effect it could have on the clinical load. Imagine having to somehow convince a pregnant mother that their child will turn out perfectly normal despite that elevated heart disease risk factor.

It occured to me lately quite how fortunate I am. There are a few science columns I read by guys in their 50s that mention that they'll wait a couple more years for the price to drop on personal genome sequencing, and then they're doing it. That is, getting hold of the sequence for a fraction of their genome, the size and price of which is dependent on the package and company they go for. 23andMe's service tests for a number of significant (disease-indicating) variations at 600,000 positions, at the fairly affordable price of $399. A couple of other operators are in the $1,000-2,500 range, testing roughly a million polymorphisms. Each service is aimed at providing estimates of their customer's 'genetic risk.'

Meanwhile, Knome (another really great name, and tagline!) offer a complete personal genome sequence and analysis, for a somewhat-heftier price. This year-old article suggests a figure of $350,000 (wikipedia haggles down to $99,500) , which would include ongoing support by a team of geneticists and bioinformaticians, apparently (career bells start ringing...). And would you believe it, they output on a sparkly new USB key!

But it won't be in the hundreds of thousands forever. Certainly in 20 years we should anticipate it will be affordable for us regulars - indeed this wide availability is a crucial point of all the genetic dystopias we've been busily envisaging since Human Genome Project results started coming through in 2000. Of course, we all expect health insurance premiums to be calculated on the basis of our genetic disease risk. A short step indeed to Gattaca.

I fully anticipate that within my lifetime I'll be able to have a browse through the complete sequence of As, Cs, Ts and Gs that determine so much about me, without breaking the bank. I only hope I'll be savvy enough to understand what some of it means. It's magical really, and represents an comprehension of human biology standing on the brink of the unimaginable. Beyond it lies real sci-fi territory.


Are viruses alive? Yes or No? This question is a controversial one at ERV, where there's frustration at a recent review in Nature Reviews: Microbiology (Bear in mind that with an impact factor of ~15, that's a pretty hefty journal to go spitting on virologists in). The notion of excluding viruses from the "Tree of Life" seems a peculiar one to me: they have played such a huge part in the development of life, and continue to have a huge role in living systems, it really doesn't make sense on a practical level. Ultimately the use of having such a tree is to understand the relationships within it between living things, and the history of their development, and given that viruses have such relationships, they should really be in. That would, at least, be my view from a practical standpoint.

There's an interesting question here anyway, about our definition, ever hazy, of life. It can't rest on autonomy, as last time I checked humans, among other species, wouldn't do terribly well left on our own. Nor can we disqualify viruses simply because it's hard to trace their lineages, as unsatisfying as it may be if we are unable to reach the root of the tree. As we scrabble around trying to find the boundary between living and non-living we naturally enter into questions of abiogenesis. It's a pretty fascinating area to think about, and ill-served by artificially imposing living/dead boundaries.

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