On using (or abusing) bio-technology

I wrote a small piece on fair use of our biotechnology on my Tumblr, but since I’m planning to write longer pieces on this blog, I wanted to cross-post it here as well.

Joe Hanson, of It’s Okay To Be Smart, wrote:

Can Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering Save an American Icon?

What I find so interesting is that the techniques being used to save this tree, and one day reintroduce it to the wild, are not that different from those that are used to create genetically modified crops. How does saving a dying species by inserting a gene differ from creating an herbicide-resistant soybean, or rice that produces extra vitamins? I have my opinions, but I want to know: What do you think?

My thoughts are below.

The two are different in only the following way—in one case, we’re using our technology to help another being survive better; in another case we’re using technology to extract more from a being we intend to use as a ‘resource’, in this case food.

I think they’re both fine uses of our technology.

As humans, we have always wanted to modify our surroundings to suit us better. That’s who we are; that’s what defines us as a species and helps us move unflinchingly deeper into the unknown.

It was the same when we invented agriculture; it was the same when we domesticated animals; it was the same when we forced natural selection to go in a certain direction to create “man’s best friend”.

The only difference today is that instead of indirect approaches, we’re learning to make pin-point, particular modifications exactly as we require.

Yes, this is a sensitive topic, and rightfully so. With great power does come great responsibility, and we’re only now learning to harness the power of genetic engineering. I feel we should find it easy to stay on the straight and narrow as long as we remember one rule—no interference for the fun of it. I’ll explain more.

Only organisms capable of photosynthesis are able to produce their own energy. Every other living being must depend on other living beings for energy and sustenance, and we are no different. As long as our genetic engineering endeavours are focussed towards areas that we must harvest for our nutrition, we should be okay. Genetically modified crops are okay—as long as we understand the effects of what we are doing. Edit*: There is a lot of ambivalence towards genetically modified food crops, but the problem isn’t the technology itself, but that we don’t yet understand* the technology well enough to implement it perfectly. Let’s keep at it; we’ll get there.

In addition, being the sole species on this planet with advanced technology, we owe it to our planet-mates to share. Just as in this example of chestnut trees dying from a fungus, when we see an organism dying from infection, and we realize we can help—by all means, we should! We already try to help species that we are afraid will become extinct (often, unfortunately, to our own greedy exploits)–why should that help not include our latest and greatest knowledge?

Let’s just not play with our planet-mates simply because we can. That would be abuse of power, no?

Of Space Worms

Found this article recently, where they wanted to check how microscopic worms would do in space. Turns out, they do fine—in fact, they actually live longer in space! Additionally:

“We identified seven genes, which were down-regulated in space and whose inactivation extended lifespan under laboratory conditions,” Szewczyk said in a press release. This basically means that seven C. elegans genes usually associated with muscle aging were suppressed when the worms were exposed to a microgravity environment. Also, it appears spaceflight suppresses the accumulation of toxic proteins that normally gets stored inside aging muscle.

They’re not sure what the biological mechanisms might be behind this phenomenon.

I wonder, though—how much of it can be simple chemistry and fluid dynamics? We know that at small enough length scales (such as those of microscopic organisms) viscosity is a much stronger agent than inertia (governed by mass, and to an extent, gravity). Often, gravitational effects are ignored when doing small scale analyses. How do things change in the actual biology when gravity is really zero, not just as an approximation?

Also from the article:

“Most of us know that muscle tends to shrink in space. These latest results suggest that this is almost certainly an adaptive response rather than a pathological one. Counter-intuitively, muscle in space may age better than on Earth. It may also be that spaceflight slows the process of aging.”

I’m not sure why this seems novel. My thought has always been that muscle atrophy in space is due to lack of use, i.e. adaptation. This is why astronauts take special care to exercise their leg muscles while at the International Space Station. The legs no longer need to support the considerable weight of the human body, and the body efficiently starts optimizing its resources!

But perhaps (and most likely) my lack of knowledge allows me to simplify a phenomenon that a physiologist would find many angles to! I’d love to know those angles though—anyone reading this who can help?

☛ Of the brain-eating amoeba

Be careful what you do with your tap water:

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals has issued a weird warning: if you have to irrigate your sinuses with water for some medical reason, don’t use tap water. The reason: your brains may get eaten by the Naegleria fowleri.

Water that you drink is quite all right—even if it contains the bacteria, it will be destroyed when it reaches the stomach and the body’s digestive juices.

But beware if you intend to put water up your nose! This channel is not intended for water (or other food), and does not have the same defense systems as our digestive system does.

The amoeba attacks your nervous system, and can pretty soon leave you dead! Fortunately, the way around is pretty simple: just boil the water to kill the bug!

(My gripe with the article: no source information! No links, whatsoever. Terrible.)

Trying to be too clean

Being conscious of our hygiene is a good thing, of course. But is it possible to overdo our hygiene routines for our own good? Have you noticed how more and more people use sanitizing hand wipes, or antibacterial hand soaps? Their function, of course, is to ‘wipe out’ all the bacteria around you—but is that always a good thing?

I’ve always had my theories, but now there’s actual evidence—it’s probably not a very good thing on the long run.

For one, not all micro-organisms that we’re exposed to (or that live on or inside us) are harmful for our health. Some are actually our friends! It’d suck to have them die out, right? Well, guess what the antimicrobial lotions that you use do.

For another, our bodies have their own incredible immune system, which is trusted with protecting the body against disease, and killing germs and tumors that affect us. Well, part of how the human immune system works is that it’s adaptive, which means, our body actually learns from experience whether a certain organism is harmful or not, and whether something in our body needs to be attacked or not. This is an incredible mechanism, but this, by definition, is dependent upon the body being exposed to some amount of microbes, so that it can keep itself healthy and at a cutting edge.

In fact, this is exactly the function of vaccines: expose the body to a small amount of impotent germs, so that the body can trigger its immune system and form a ‘memory’ of that particular disease. Next time an actual disease tries to attack—BAM!—the immune system is there to take care of it at the outset.

(As an aside, yes—all those people going on an on about getting rid of vaccines? They don’t know what they’re talking about. Some people are not in a position to make an informed choice on their own, and those that are, sometimes make their decisions based on something other than logic, science and information. For example, this (a video on the page starts autoplaying; please mute your speakers if that’s a problem).)

Given this mechanism, what do you think happens when you wipe out every kind of microbe on or around us, with those antimicrobial wipes of yours? The body loses all ability to adapt and keep its immune system updated and at peak working condition. This is fine as long as you allow nothing infectious to approach us—but the moment something does sneak through, the body has no mechanism to counter it. The effect—being sick at the first sign of disease. This, of course, is not such a great thing.

Most people are familiar with this effect—this is why we’re wary about drinking tap water when we visit a new place. Even though residents there are perfectly healthy—which means the water is nominally clean—we might get an upset stomach upon drinking the local water: our bodies were not ready for the local microbial action!

This effect is multiplied many times when we’re chronically using wipes to “sanitize” ourselves. Sanitize ourselves we do, but we also take the edge out of our immune systems.

Being hygienic is good, yes. But it’s also good to play in the mud sometimes, and to expose ourselves to our fellow invisible Earthlings. And it’s mostly fine—and in fact healthier—to wash ourselves with just good old soap!