The Genetizen

Genetizen

Advances in genetics and biotechnology are impacting society in provocative ways. The Genetizen is written by a select group of scientists, bioethicists, and healthcare professionals who provide you with expert analysis and commentary on many important issues.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in blog postings may or may not reflect the opinions of Geneforum. In addition, the content provided here is purely informational and not a substitute for advice from your personal physician.



Can corn genetics tell us something about human genetics?

Many years ago, a geneticist studying corn (maize) reported her research and received llittle notice other than ridicule. Some said that she reported all kinds of data but never tried to interpret what they meant. Eventually, Barbara McClintock was able to interpret the data that challenged standard interpretations of genes and how they behave. She was credited with discovering "jumping genes" and received a Nobel prize for her work.

It's too soon to know whether Vicki Chandler's (photo) work will earn similar recognition, but she has been finding similar responses: "Some geneticists get upset about this because it blows all the rules, but you just can't think about it the way you've always thought about it."


According to the Tuscon Citiizen, "the rule being broken is the classic theory that says offspring inherit genes from their parents, and the genes function in the children the same way as they had in the parents.
 
Chandler is a University of Arizona Regents professor of plant sciences, and molecular and cellular biology. She and her colleagues published their findings in Nature as "An RNA-dependent RNA polymerase is required for paramutation in maize."
 
Paramutation is a situation where one version of a parent's gene orders the other gene that came from the other parent to act differently in the next generation. This process is enabled by an RNA-dependent RNA polymerase. As a result, even though the offspring's DNA is identical to the DNA it inherited from the parents, some genes function differently.
 
Similar to the work published by McClintock, where the phenomenon of jumping genes was first seen in corn, and later found to apply to other organisms, Chandler reports that the phenomenon, originally found in corn, has since been found in other organisms - including mammals.
 
It will be interesting to follow this research, and other research into RNA, once considered only a slave to DNA and an intermediary between DNA and protein. Recent research is showing that RNA has many "genetic" functions.
Marie Godfrey, PhD

 

mgodfrey39's blog

Bush vetoes bill intended to remove restrictions on federal funding of stem cell research

Bush's veto of the bill known as H.B. 810, or the stem cell enhancement bill, is the first veto cast by the President of bills delivered to him from Congress. The New York Times online reported the veto about an hour ago.

Bush, "surrounded by scores of children born as a result of an embryo-adoption program and their parents", made the following statement:

This bill would support the taking of innocent human life. Each of these human embryos is a unique human life with inherent dignity and matchless value. These boys and girls are not spare parts.

In an interesting note, the Times reported:

. . . one element was missing [from the White House ceremony]: a flourish of the pen that Mr. Bush typically uses to sign a measure that he likes. The president had already signed his name on the veto before appearing in public. The actual signing was not photographed because, Mr. Snow said beforehand, Mr. Bush did not think it would be appropriate.

No official statement was made on whether an override vote would be taken.

Marie Godfrey, PhD

mgodfrey39's blog

Was stem cell action in Senate strictly political?

I watched many hours of the stem cell debates in the Senate Monday and Tuesday, taking a break mainly when the Senate went to lunch on Tuesday.

Actually, one had to watch only once in a while, because much of the information presented was repeated over and over. I believe the whole discussion was strictly a political move on the part of both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats and Republicans alike pushed to have the measure discussed so that the public could see them on stage making their pitch. All are eager to look good to their constituents and others and most really believe what they were saying.

The "deal" to put 3 bills together and to vote on the newer ones before the older H.B. 810 gave everyone an opportunity to speak on behalf of two bills considered not controversial. Then, each could give their spin to the controversial bill. Meanwhile, though, everyone "knows" that President Bush will rescue the millions or billions that might be spent on stem cell lines created after August, 2001 by vetoing the bill.

The following statements have been around for a long time (certainly since 2001):

  • Treatment with adult stem cells (and cord blood stem cells) has shown positive results for 65 (68, 70, 72?) diseases [the number varies, but no one ever mentions that almost all represent infusions of blood-forming cells in patients treated for cancer]
  • Embryonic stem cell research has not "cured" a single disease [note the difference between "positive results"--the new mantra--and "cure". This statement is true; however, clinical studies of embryonic stem cells are just beginning, and those funded by the federal government can only be done with 6 (4?) "healthy" but mouse-contaminated cell lines. Studies with adult stem cells (eg, bone marrow) have been going on for decades.]
  • Creation of embryonic stem cells requires the killing of embryos. [Yes, removal of the inner cell mass from a very early embryo does mean that the embryo will never develop into a human being. If you agree that this is killing an embryo, the rest of the text here doesn't apply. However, no blastocyst is guaranteed life: many embryos do not succeed in implanting when they are put into a woman's uterus; some embryos are "killed" when too many embryos implant and develop, and a multiple-birth is risky; many embryos are allowed to die (from storage beyond a couple of years); many embryos are discarded because they are not needed by the people who supplied the egg and sperm.]
  • Some people have adopted embryos (having one or more introduced into a woman's uterus and allowed to develop). These are the Snowflake children. [The numbers naturally have increased since 2001.]
  • Stem cells from a source other than the person receiving them can cause immune reactions in the recipient. [Speakers generally accused the non-favored type of stem cells of causing this problem. Yes, there is always a chance of rejection, graft-vs-host reaction, and other immune problems when foreign cells are introduced. However, The stem cells taken from a person and injected back into that person have the same genetic components; if the person developed a genetically-influenced condition, giving back the same genes cannot help forever. Cord blood cells are not the answer: Most adults didn't save their umbilical cord cells, and if they did, the cells wouldn't be healthy in storage over more than 5 years or so. There are very few stem cells in the umbilical cord, so even an infant or child who was originally attached to the cord cannot get more than one stem cell treatment without growing the cells in test tubes.]

Here are some of the newer arguments for and against embryonic stem cell research:

  • Stem cell lines have been created by "alternative" means--one of the three bills requires Congress to spend money to further research these methods. [Did you know that one method creates a defective embryo and then uses it as a source for stem cells and that another method removes one cell from an 8-cell embryo and uses this to develop a stem cell line? Both techniques are new, not fully tested, and other possibilities certainly exist.]
  • Embryonic stem cells injected into mice create teratomas (cancers). [One speaker said, "that's how scientists tell the cells are stem cells, because they are capable of growing in the new location"; another said "we can never control these teratomas, which will kill the recipient"--these are not direct quotes.]
  • Adult stem cells have been used to create new heart tissue and repair damaged spinal cords. [This work is still early, only on individual patients generally outside the U.S. and not in controlled clinical studies, and neither is a "new" use of stem cells. The stem cells used--either hematopoietic (blood-forming) or connective tissue (also generally from bone marrow)--could be expected to develop into the resulting tissues.]
  • Stem cell lines have been created from eggs and sperm (germ cells). [I need to research this one further; since eggs and sperm have only 1/2 the chromosomes of other cells, this statement cannot be totally true. The research must refer to cells in the body that can develop into eggs and sperm. Also, in women, all egg cells have already been formed at birth so it is hard to tell what cells are being described.]

I think that list gives you enough-perhaps more than you wanted to know--about some of the arguments presented during Senate presentations. You can read everything, including all information a Senator asked to have "put into record" by going to www.senate.gov and accessing the Daily Digest--and then the detailed text--for each day.

Marie Godfrey, PhD

mgodfrey39's blog

All 3 stem cell bills pass Senate

Just a few minutes ago, the last (H.B. 810)--and most controversial--of the three stem cells debated in the Senate passed 63 to 37. According to the summary shown on the C-SPAN2 screen, this bill "broadens spending for embryonic stem cell research". Actually, what it does is remove the limitations now in force; no additional money is allocated in the bill. Since the House had already passed this bill (14 months ago), the bill now goes to President Bush. If he vetoes it, as he has declared, the 63 votes would not be enough to override the veto; 67 votes are needed.

The other two bills relating to stem cell research (no fetal farming and investigate alternative ways of making embryonic stem cell lines), as expected, passed-- unanimously. These will now go to the House, where they are also expected to easily pass. President Bush will likely sign these two bills.

One question arose in my mind as I was watching the voting: if so many spoke in favor of retaining the limits on federal spending for embryonic stem cell research why did so few (zero) vote against the bill that directs NIH to investigate alternative ways of creating embryonic stem cell lines? Wouldn't this money also be "taken away" from adult stem cell research"?

Anyway, the drama is over in the Senate. Let's see what President Bush does.

Marie Godfrey, PhD

mgodfrey39's blog

Opposition to embryonic stem cell research cites 65 diseases cured by adult stem cells; are they right?

David A. Prentice, a scientist with the conservative Family Research Council is one of the people advocating tight restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. According to an article in the July 15th Washington Post and a letter to the editor of Science magazine, Prentice's claims that adult stem cells have at least as much medical potential as embryonic cells are not supported by even the references he gives in his examples.

Shane Smith of the Children's Neurobiological Solutions Foundation in Santa Barbara, Calif.; William B. Neaves of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Mo.; and Steven Teitelbaum of Washington University in St. Louis went through Prentice's footnoted documentation and concluded that most of his examples are wrong. For example:

  • A study cited by Prentice as evidence that adult stem cells can help patients with testicular cancer is in fact a study that evaluates methods of isolating adult stem cells.
  • Similarly, a published report that Prentice cites as evidence that adult stem cells can help patients with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma does not address the medical value of those cells but rather describes the best way to isolate cells from lymphoma patients and grow them in laboratory dishes.
  • And Prentice's reference to the usefulness of adult stem cells for patients with Sandhoff disease -- a rare nerve disorder -- is "a layperson's statement in a newspaper article".

"All told, the scientists concluded, there are only nine diseases that have been proved to respond to treatment with adult stem cells." (Washington Post).

The Post quotes from the Science letter as follows:

By promoting the falsehood that adult stem cell treatments are already in general use for 65 diseases and injuries, Prentice and those who repeat his claims mislead laypeople and cruelly deceive patients.

Prentice, in a brief voice message left for a Post reporter, is quoted as saying, "I appreciate them pointing out some of the things . . . that need to be changed and updated." But, the Post reports that "he accused the letter writers of 'mental gymnastics' by focusing narrowly on proven therapies, as opposed to the large number of diseases for which the value of adult stem cells is now being tested."

The issue of adult vs embryonic stem cell research has been discussed here in the Genetizen blog several times. To see these entries, adult stem cells in the search box on this page.

Marie Godfrey, PhD

mgodfrey39's blog

Stem cell bills to be debated in Senate July 17

Here are the summaries of the bills being considered:

S.3504

Title: A bill to amend the Public Health Service Act to prohibit the solicitation or acceptance of tissue from fetuses gestated for research purposes, and for other purposes.
Sponsor: Sen Santorum, Rick [PA] (introduced 6/13/2006) Cosponsors (2)
Related Bills: H.R.5719
Latest Major Action: 6/13/2006 Referred to Senate committee. Status: Read twice and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

SUMMARY AS OF:
6/13/2006--Introduced.
Fetus Farming Prohibition Act of 2006 - Amends the Public Health Service Act to prohibit any person or entity involved in interstate commerce from: (1) soliciting or knowingly acquiring, receiving, or accepting a donation of human fetal tissue knowing that a human pregnancy was deliberately initiated to provide such tissue; or (2) knowingly acquiring, receiving, or accepting tissue or cells obtained from a human embryo or fetus that was gestated in the uterus of a nonhuman animal. Imposes fines and/or imprisonment for violations of this Act.

S.2754

Title: A bill to derive human pluripotent stem cell lines using techniques that do not knowingly harm embryos.
Sponsor: Sen Santorum, Rick [PA] (introduced 5/5/2006) Cosponsors (4)
Related Bills: H.R.5526
Latest Major Action: 6/27/2006 Senate committee/subcommittee actions. Status: Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies. Hearings held.

SUMMARY AS OF:
5/5/2006--Introduced.

Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act - Amends the Public Health Service Act to require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop techniques for the isolation, derivation, production, or testing of stem cells that are capable of producing all or almost all of the cell types of the developing body and may result in improved understanding of treatments for diseases and other adverse health conditions, but are not derived from a human embryo.

Requires the Secretary to: (1) provide guidance concerning the next steps required for additional research; (2) prioritize research with the greatest potential for near-term clinical benefit; and (3) take into account techniques outlined by the President's Council on Bioethics and any other appropriate techniques and research.

H.R.810

Title: To amend the Public Health Service Act to provide for human embryonic stem cell research.
Sponsor: Rep Castle, Michael N. [DE] (introduced 2/15/2005) Cosponsors (200)
Related Bills: S.471
Latest Major Action: 6/6/2005 Read the second time. Placed on Senate Legislative Calendar under General Orders. Calendar No. 119.

SUMMARY AS OF:
5/24/2005--Passed House, without amendment. (There is 1 other summary)

(This measure has not been amended since it was introduced. The summary has been expanded because action occurred on the measure.)

Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005 - Amends the Public Health Service Act to require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to conduct and support research that utilizes human embryonic stem cells, regardless of the date on which the stem cells were derived from a human embryo, provided such embryos: (1) have been donated from in vitro fertilization clinics; (2) were created for the purposes of fertility treatment; (3) were in excess of the needs of the individuals seeking such treatment and would never be implanted in a woman and would otherwise be discarded (as determined in consultation with the individuals seeking fertility treatment); and (4) were donated by such individuals with written informed consent and without any financial or other inducements.

Requires the Secretary to: (1) issue final guidelines to carry out this Act within 60 days; and (2) submit annual reports on activities and research conducted under this Act.

H.R.810
Title: To amend the Public Health Service Act to provide for human embryonic stem cell research.
Sponsor: Rep Castle, Michael N. [DE] (introduced 2/15/2005) Cosponsors (200)
Related Bills: S.471
Latest Major Action: 6/6/2005 Read the second time. Placed on Senate Legislative Calendar under General Orders. Calendar No. 119.

SUMMARY AS OF:
2/15/2005--Introduced. (There is 1 other summary)

Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005 - Amends the Public Health Service Act to require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to conduct and support research that utilizes human embryonic stem cells, regardless of the date on which the stem cells were derived from a human embryo. Limits such research to stem cells that meet the following ethical requirements: (1) the stem cells were derived from human embryos donated from in vitro fertilization clinics for the purpose of fertility treatment and were in excess of the needs of the individuals seeking such treatment; (2) the embryos would never be implanted in a woman and would otherwise be discarded; and (3) such individuals donate the embryos with written informed consent and receive no financial or other inducements.

You can check out additional details by going to www.senate.gov and making your selection of the bills on the righthand side of the screen (schedule for Monday, July 17).

Marie Godfrey, PhD

mgodfrey39's blog

Make your stem cell views known to Senators and to President Bush

This weekend and Monday and Tuesday (July 17 and 18) are excellent days to express your personal opinions about stem cells to your Senators and the President. According to the Washington Post today,

Majority Leader Bill Frist predicted on Friday the U.S. Senate would pass legislation next week expanding federal stem cell research, likely triggering a veto from President George W. Bush with unpredictable political repercussions. . . The president says it is morally unacceptable to destroy an embryo even for scientific research.

Frist, whose opinion on stem cells has changed from time to time, opposes abortion but feels that excess embryos (from efforts to provide viable embryos for those who cannot otherwise conceive) would be destroyed or allowed to die anyway. They should be used instead--say many people--to provide a source of cells for embryonic stem cells.

The Post also reports that Frist brokered a complex agreement to get a package of three bills relating to stem cell research to the floor next week.

The political ramifications of supporting or rejecting embryonic stem cell research are many. But, that's not my interest today. I am interested in having people review information on stem cells. You can get a good series of blog entries by typing stem cells in the search box at the top of this page. The entries you will find all have descriptive titles and are arranged chronologically.

If you have a specific question to pose for Geneforum or its readers, please ask.

Meanwhile, check out the contact information for your Senators (online, in the phone book, etc.) and WRITE or CALL, giving a concise statement of your personal opinion. I have found in the past that even e-mails are generally acknowledged.

We don't want to dictate what your opinion should be--you decide. But, if the public is going to have some say in policy decisions, then we--the public--have to participate in the decision-making process.

Marie Godfrey, PhD

mgodfrey39's blog

48,000 Oregonians Say No to Genetic Research

The Oregonian ran an article today on Kaiser Permanente's (KP) / Oregon Health Science University's (OHSU) opt-out letters for using genetic information in research projects, which were sent to 478,000 KP members and 217,000 OHSU patients last month. [See Marie's earlier blog posts, here and here.]

For the most part, the article doesn't shed much new information, except to create broader public awareness for the letters and how they came about.

read more | afowler's blog

Gene patenting

Of the nearly 24,000 human genes found in human DNA, more than 4,000 have been patented by private firms and universities, an October 2005 study finds. The study was reported in National Geographic (

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/10/1013_051013_gene_patent_2.html)

.

 Human DNA
Illustration courtesy National Institutes of Health
 
Last week I was attending a Quaker conference in Tacoma, Washington and spoke with Laura Holliday, a lawyer and political activist. During an interest group discussion of genetic testing I was conducting on behalf of Geneforum, she asked me to track down more information on gene patenting. She's interested in how corporations are increasingly taking control of our world.
Genes can be patented because they are entities that can be used in research, diagnostic tests, or in discovering and developing new drugs. The DNA sequence of part or all of a gene is what is typically patented. A DNA sequence can even be patented if no phenotype--genetic expression--has been identified for the gene.

According to an article last fall in National Geographic,

Gene patents were central to the biotech boom of the 1980s and 1990s. The earliest gene patents were obtained around 1978 on the gene for human growth hormone.

today [October 2005] more than 4,000 genes, or 20 percent of the almost 24,000 human genes, have been claimed in U.S. patents.

Of the patented genes, about 63 percent are assigned to private firms and 28 percent are assigned to universities.

The top patent assignee is Incyte, a Palo Alto, California-based drug company whose patents cover 2,000 human genes.

The article quoted above was dervied from an article in Science magazine, describing and visualizing the patent situation. This article can be found at

http://web.mit.edu/fmurray/www/papers/JensenMurray_SciencePolicyForum.pdf

Again, according to the National Geographic article,
Advocates argue that gene patents, like all patents, promote the disclosure and dissemination of ideas by making important uses of gene sequences publicly known. . . Patents also provide important incentives to investors who would otherwise be reluctant to invest in ideas that could be copied by competitors.

So, why are people worried about genes being patented?

. . . critics caution that patents that are very broad can obstruct future innovations by preventing researchers from looking for alternative uses for a patented gene.

In cases where there are a lot of patents surrounding one area of research, the scientific costs of gene patents—financial and otherwise—can be extremely high.

I'll let you know more about the institutions and companies that hold gene patents, as I find more information.

Marie Godfrey, PhD

mgodfrey39's blog

Does genetic testing from different labs yield the same result?

I have often remarked that different genetic testing laboratories may give different results and suggested that people not automatically accept the results of one laboratory when planning their futures. This is especially true when major life decisions are involved.

A recent report from the IOS Press, published online by newswise introduces the situation for a specific genetic test as follows:

For individuals who develop colorectal cancers at a young age or have a family history of such cancers, microsatellite instability testing (MSI) has become an almost standard component of clinical evaluation. This DNA-based test can uncover hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer syndrome (HNPCC), also called Lynch’s syndrome. However, despite the increased use of this test, there have been no reports of how well the results from any given laboratory agree with any other laboratory. In an article in the current issue of Cancer Biomarkers, researchers conducted testing across 6 laboratories to evaluate variability in reported results.

Here's what was done:

The six laboratories, located in the United States, Canada, and Australia, were members of the Cooperative Family Registry for Colon Cancer Studies (also called the Colon CFR). Using tumor samples collected since 1998 through the CFR, MSI testing was done at the six laboratories. Three of the laboratories had more than 8 years each of prior experience in MSI testing, while the other three set up MSI assays specifically for the Colon CFR.

The results--and follow-up--were very interesting:

When the result showed wide disagreement with no systematic trends, one of the most experienced laboratories was designated the “gold standard” reference facility. With further testing of samples among the most experienced laboratories, the credentials of the reference laboratory were validated. A review of the results from all of the facilities resulted in five key rules that laboratories should observe when conducting MSI testing. Using these lessons learned, a final set of testing showed much improved agreement across all six laboratories.

The complete article, “Ascending the Learning Curve – MSI Testing Experience of a Six-Laboratory Consortium” by Noralane M. Lindor et al appears in a special issue of Cancer Biomarkers and is available by subscription only. I'll try to get a reprint and post it to the geneforum resources. Unfortunately, I cannot even tell you which laboratory was found to be the "gold standard", but I will try to find out.

The tendency to believe the results of a single genetic test may result in part from our acceptance of technology we don't fully understand. We may also each have an inborn or learned tendency to accept a diagnosis, figuring that tests are generally accurate. How far we challenge a result, or how often we look for a second opinion, may be dictated by our personal feelings, our insurance coverage, and or general outlook on life.

I think what matters in this particular article, and the study on which it is based, is that testing can itself be tested. The lead author, Noralane M. Lindor states,

This experience flushed out some important principles in MSI testing…and demonstrated that a very high degree of concordance for MSI testing is feasible….We strongly urge all clinical and research laboratories conducting MSI to participate in a sample exchange validation with an experienced group or consortium and that clinical laboratory certifying bodies develop plans to evaluate quality of MSI testing results being returned to clinicians and patients.

We as consumers can encourage studies of this type and help make testing more reliable--even if we don't know all the intricate details involved in the testing and its interpretation.

Marie Godfrey, PhD

 

mgodfrey39's blog

Stay tuned

Dear readers of the Genetizen blog new and old,

My ability to cover news items and create blog entries has been severely hampered lately and recent family developments will continue to interfere with maintaining a daily post. Please forgive any lapses and continue to check in as often as you can.

I'll continue to receive daily updates in stem cells, genetic testing, genetics, DNA testing, ethics, and biotechnology and will still try to bring reports of those to you as I can. Who knows, I may find that daily blog entries help me keep going. This blog is part of my connection to the world of genetics and part of my mission in life.

Meanwhile, your comments, questions, and other items will help keep this blog alive. Thanks!

Marie Godfrey, PhD

mgodfrey39's blog

Mendel's garden

Check out geneforum and other blogs at Mendel's Garden blog carnival:

blogcarnival.com/bc/cprof_349.html

This edition, edited by Hsein-Hsein Lei of Genetics and Health (www.geneticsandhealth.com) describes the variety of blogs available, by giving a sample subject and a link to the blog.

If you have trouble finding the connection, you can get to it by googling Mendel's blog or by going to www.geneticsandhealth.com). You can also check Hsein-Hsein's comment to this psoting and use the link she provides.

I'm at a Quaker Gathering and limited to 10 minutes a time at a computer terminal, so cannot post anything new for a few more days.

Marie Godfrey, PhD

mgodfrey39's blog

Genes, environment, cockroaches, ants, and giraffes

It's the 4th of July weekend (5 days for some people) and I'm in a motel in Yakima, WA on my way to a weeklong Quaker meeting in Tacoma. Why the details? Because I need to give you the setting for an interesting study on ants that I just read about in the Yakima Herald Republic, the local newspaper provided free in my motel.  The author picked up the news from the Los Angeles Times, who apparently picked it up from Science. World news today in the middle of Washington wine country!

Many, many years ago, when I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, we had a story we always told about "brilliant scientists". Since we were geneticists and molecular biologists, we usually referred to psychologists or some other frowned-upon group--the joke was what we now call blonde or Polish jokes. In any case, here's how the story went:

A brilliant scientist decided to study the mechanism of jumping in cockroaches (we had lots of them in the old Mergenthaler Hall).  He put the cockroach on a table, rang a bell, and the cockroach jumped. Then, he cut off one of the cockroach's legs, rang the bell, and the cockroach still jumped. Another leg, it still jumped.....etc. Finally, he cut off the last leg, rang the bell, and the cockroach did not jump! From this, the scientist concluded that cutting off a cockroach's legs impairs its hearing.

So, today we have an ant and leg operations. Here's the Yakima Herald Republic's story:

With nothing but a featureless expanse of sand around them, Saharan desert ants can still figure out how far away from home they are using a sophisticated internal pedometer, German scientists reported Friday.

The ants take a meandering route from their nest in search of food, but when it is time to come home, they are able to calculate the most direct route back.

Scientists knew the direction component of the ants' navigation system relied on the sun, but they did not know how the ants figured out how far to go.

A team led by neurobiologist Harald Wolf, of the University of Ulm in Germany, hypothesized that the ants essentially counted their steps.

To test their theory, the researchers altered the lenght of the ants' steps by giving them stilts made from pig bristles to their legs or amputating the bottom of their legs, leaving them with stumps.

The theory was that, with altered step sizes--but an internally set target number of steps--the ants with longer legs would go too far in looking for the nest, and the ants with shorter legs would not go far enough.

The results, publisheded in the journal Science,  showed just that.

Once they were accustomed to their new legs, the ants adjusted their calculations of how many steps it took to get home and behaved just like normal ants.

Wolf said his group will use their knowledge of how the nervous system controls leg movement to figure out how the step counter works.

Hmmm, we've moved from legs length to the nervous system in one big jump. I wonder what happens with bees? Do they judge distance to home by the length of their alreday-too-short wings?

So, you ask, how does this relate to genetics? You may remember that years ago, Lysenko of Russia developed a theory that stated that animals changed to meet their environment--giraffes have long necks because they need to read tree leaves way up high. Today, there are battles--less in the news the past month than earlier--in which supporters of intelligent design suggest that all change (if any occurs at all) is directed by an intelligent designer, not evolution.

So, the ants are able to adjust to their new legs and reset their odometers. Does the environment change our genetic makeup? If so, does it change the genetics of reproductive cells as well, so that our offspring may inherit changes made to our genetic makeup before we reproduce?

The experiments may sound odd, and the conclusions perhaps not even connected to the "real" reasons for something happening, but questioning is the essence of science. Bring on the questions!!

Marie Godfrey, PhD

mgodfrey39's blog

Stem cell funding may be debated in Senate next month

Well, stem cells are again in the news for legislative debate. Rumor has it that Nancy Reagan talked Senator Frist into actually bringing the issue to the floor. Here's the way Capital Watch reported it:

WASHINGTON — A bill that would lift federal restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research is headed to the Senate floor for a vote next month along with two related bills favored by social conservatives.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., announced an agreement late Thursday as the Senate headed into a weeklong July 4 recess, setting up a showdown later this summer with the White House, which opposes any research that involves the destruction of human embryos.

All three bills will require a 60-vote supermajority for Senate passage.

The centerpiece bill would give federally funded researchers access to surplus embryos from fertility clinics. Cells from fertilized human eggs have the potential to develop into any cell in the body, and researchers hope to use them to cure disease or repair injuries.

The Senate will debate two related stem-cell measures: one that would ban researchers from harvesting embryos from pregnant women specifically for research and one that would encourage the National Institutes of Health to pursue research that uses adult stem cells to treat disease.

I'll watch for the action and hope you will, too.

Marie Godfrey, PhD

mgodfrey39's blog

Everyone wants your DNA--whose is it anyway?

In contrast to Kaiser Permanente's recent acknowledgement that they are planning to use tissues, including DNA, from their patients for unspecified resarch unless individuals opt-out by submitting a letter to them, the Ministry of Health in New Zealand announced today that residents of that country are being asked to comment on proposed guidelines for such unspecified research. In an article, the ministry's chief clinical adviser, Sandy Dawson, stated:

New Zealand already has clear guidelines on the ethical collection, use and disposal of tissues for research which is specified at the time that consent is given. These proposed guidelines provide additional guidance for ethics committees and researchers to cover situations where tissues can be stored and used for to find answers to research questions that arise in future.

According to the article, "human tissue is defined as any material that is, or includes, human cells. It includes all or any part of a body, a foetus or the body of a still-born child, human stem cells, other human cells and blood."

New Zealand research groups are among those who want to bank human tissue for future, unspecified research. Kaiser Permanente, deCODE genetics (Iceland), biobank of the UK, and many other groups are already building or working with their "biobanks". Several days ago you had an invitation to give comment on a US genetic advisory committee proposal for a biobank--at the same time NIH has already begun initial work on such a project. Hmmm, should we wonder whether the branches of our government are not talking to each other?

What's happening? Are the decisions being made for us? Do we have any say in the matter?

Becoming informed--even realizing that these things are happening around us--is a good first step. Reading and commenting on notices for public input are other ways. If you want to read what New Zealand proposes, go to http://www.moh.govt.nz/moh.nsf/indexmh/guidelines-use-of-human-tissue and download a copy of the proposed guidelines.

For the US proposals (for what they're worth), check out the blog entry YOUR comments needed on whether NIH should start a population study on Genes, Environment, and Disease.

Marie Godfrey, PhD

mgodfrey39's blog