Johnny Berliner made this charming little calypso account of genes and what they are made of. It’s concise and precise as well as nice. (Calypso rhyming is catching)
h/t Mark Stevenson.
Johnny Berliner made this charming little calypso account of genes and what they are made of. It’s concise and precise as well as nice. (Calypso rhyming is catching)
Here is a piece I just published in the Spectator.
The terrible story of the boys mauled by a polar bear in Spitsbergen has sparked a debate about the risks of adventure travel. But what does it tell us about polar bears? Some have claimed that this month’s tragedy is evidence that they are getting hungrier and more desperate as Arctic ice retreats. More likely, it shows that they are getting ever more numerous as hunting pressure relents.
For years there was a skin of a bear hanging on the wall of the cafeteria in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen’s capital village – maybe it is still there. By rights that bear should have eaten me, or my friend Charles Gillow. The first polar bearseen in living memory in summer in Longyearbyen (about 25 miles west of where last week’s tragedy happened), it prowled past our tent while we slept by the beach one June night in 1978, having come ashore with some pack ice that drifted into the fjord in the small hours.
Woken by a car horn, a loud shout of ‘Wake up! There’s an ice bear outside your tent,’ we unzipped the tent flap suspecting a practical joke, only to see a large, off-white, furry bottom in plain view less than 100 yards away, investigating the camp sewage outflow. The bear soon hopped out among the ice floes till it was lost to view, but tracks in the sand showed it had passed close to the tent while we slept.
We had a rifle with us, because the year before an Austrian tourist had been killed by a polar bear in the north of Spitsbergen and the Norwegian authorities now insisted for the first time that expeditions be armed. But this was before the days of tripwires and flares to protect campsites. In any case, we had been firmly reassured, most of the west coast was bear-free territory in summer. We were highly unlikely to see one. Later that summer we returned to Longyearbyen, where we were told the bear – I think it was an adult male – had ‘taken to hanging around the school’ and had been shot and skinned for the cafeteria wall.
Today bears are now far more common in Spitsbergen and the other islands of Svalbard. They are more common all over the Arctic than 33 years ago. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated in 2008 that the polar bear population was at a historic high of 20,000-25,000 bears, up from as low as 5,000-10,000 bears in the 1960s. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimated in 1966 that there were 10,000 polar bears in the world; in 2006, the same source estimated 20,000-25,000 bears. Just last May the IUCN Polar BearSpecialist Group concluded there has probably been no drop in the numbers since then.
The reason for this boom is no mystery. When I travelled in Spitsbergen in the 1970s and 1980s you could still find old trap guns on remote headlands, dating from decades before: open-ended wooden boxes concealing rusty rifles with wires attached to the triggers so that a bear would shoot itself if it pulled the bait. The trapper would return later for the skin. Until 1973, bears were hunted for their fur and for sport; in that year, an international agreement banned unregulated hunting, shooting from aircraft and shooting from icebreakers. The species then thrived. Russia, Greenland and Canada all still allow some hunting, mainly by indigenous people, but at a much reduced level.
Not all populations are thriving. Some authorities think the numbers are declining in Hudson Bay and parts of the Canadian Arctic, while expanding elsewhere, but these are minor fluctuations compared with the impressive recovery of the species since the 1960s. Al Gore, in his film An Inconvenient Truth, made much of a report of four bears that drowned in open water off Alaska, implying this was a new and deadly fate awaiting polar bears as Arctic ice retreated. But polar bears often swim long distances – one was recorded swimming 400 miles – and nobody knows how unusual it was for four to get caught in a storm and drown.
The polar bear is a specialist seal-eating predator (so it is little wonder that it goes for other elongated six-foot mammals when hungry). It occupies a specific niche: the ice edge. It cannot thrive on unbroken Arctic sea ice, because seals are not found there. Nor can it survive on ice-free sea because it cannot kill seals in open water. In parts of the Arctic, notably Hudson Bay and Wrangel Island, it takes refuge on land for several late summer months when the ice vanishes, fasting – or scavenging ineffectually for young walrus, birds and fish – till the ice re-forms. This is when it is hungriest and most dangerous.
If the ice-free season lengthens in these places because of climate change, the bears might die out. After all, the most southerly polar bear dens in the world, in James Bay in Canada, are on the same latitude as Nottingham: they are at the extreme southerly end of their range. But by the same token, areas further north, currently too solidly frozen for seals, will become more hospitable to bears.
There is now good evidence that this sort of ice retreat has happened in the past. For example Svend Funder of the University of Copenhagen recently published a paper with two colleagues, based on a study of driftwood and beach ridges in north-eastern Greenland, where today year-round ice fastened to the shore prevents waves that can form beach ridges. They concluded that for thousands of years when the Arctic was known to be 2-4°C warmer, beach ridges formed and driftwood failed to make it to Greenland, indicating open water on this coast (driftwood needs multi-year ice to be transported from Siberia without sinking).
In Funder’s words: ‘Our studies show that there have been large fluctuations in the amount of summer sea ice during the last 10,000 years. During the so-called Holocene Climate Optimum, from approximately 8,000 to 5,000 years ago, when the temperatures were somewhat warmer than today, there was significantly less sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, probably less than 50 per cent of the summer 2007 coverage, which was absolutely the lowest on record.’
Much has been made of the 2007 summer ice retreat being the ‘greatest on record’, but records began only in 1979. In the 1920s and 1930s, there were probably still more open seasons; likewise in the medieval, Roman and other warm periods all the way back to the Holocene Optimum. Polar bears certainly survived such warmer spells, presumably by ranging somewhat further north. Indeed, fossils suggest that polar bears already existed in their current form during the last interglacial period, 120,000 years ago, when the Arctic was almost certainly wholly free of ice in late summer.
A total disappearance of sea ice at all seasons would undoubtedly doom thepolar bear‘s lifestyle. But no scientist in his wildest exaggerations is suggesting the disappearance of Arctic sea ice in winter. As long as there is pack ice for much of the year with an ice edge, plenty of seals and controls on hunting, thepolar bear is going to thrive – and tent-based tourism to the Arctic is going to be dangerous.
The New York Times has a fawning profile of the paymaster of eco-doomsters, Jeremy Grantham. It says:
In his April letter, “Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever,” [Jeremy Grantham] argued that “we are in the midst of one of the giant inflection points in economic history.” The market is “sending us the Mother of all price signals,” warning us that “if we maintain our desperate focus on growth, we will run out of everything and crash.”
This reminds me of T.B.Macaulay:
“We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who say society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days, but so said all who came before us and with just as much apparent reason…On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”
Grantham’s problem is that he is saying exactly what doomsters have ben saying all my life about myriad environmental issues and they have been wrong every time. Go back 40 years to 1971 and recall the continual dirge of dire doom that those of us who became teenagers that year were subjected to over the next four decades. The grown-ups told us with terrible certainty that
the population explosion was unstoppable;
global famine was inevitable;
crop yield increases would peter out;
food aid to India was futile;
a cancer epidemic caused by pesticides in the environment would shorten our lives;
the desert was advancing at two miles a year;
nuclear fallout was a growing risk;
nuclear winter was an inevitable consequence of an inevitable nuclear war;
Ebola, hanta virus and swine flu pandemics were overdue;
urban decay was irreversible;
acid rain was going to destroy whole forests;
oil spills were increasing;
economic growth was ceasing;
global inequalities would rise;
oil and gas would soon run out;
and so would copper, zinc, chrome and many other natural resources;
urban air pollution was getting worse;
the Great Lakes were dying;
dozens of bird and mammal species would become extinct each year;
a new ice age was coming;
sperm counts were falling;
mad cow disease would kill hundreds of thousands of people;
genetically modified weeds would devastate ecosystems;
nanotechnology would run riot;
computers would crash at the dawn of the millennium, bringing down parts of civilisation with them;
winter snow would become a rarity;
hurricanes would increase in frequency;
malaria would get worse;
climate change would wipe out species;
weather would kill more people
and sea-level rise would accelerate.
All these were trumpeted loudly in the mainstream media at one time or another: I am not picking obscure cases. Not one of them came true.
Presumably Grantham thinks this time it’s different.
Grantham… says that “this time it’s different are the four most dangerous words in the English language.”
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:
What limits the size of a peacock’s tail, the weight of a deer’s antlers or the virtuosity of a songbird’s song? Driven inexorably by the competition to attract mates, these features of animals ought to get ever more elaborate. There was even once a theory-now discredited-that the famously gigantic antlers of the Irish elk became so unwieldy that they caused its extinction. Yet sexual ornaments do not get ever bigger.
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John S. Dykes
Now comes evidence from studies of peacocks and frogs that what sets the limit is the ability of females to perceive any difference between one level of elaboration and the next. Cutting the tails of peacocks short prevents them from attracting peahens, but having a slightly larger tail than a rival does not make much difference, because the peahen cannot tell the difference. Likewise, female tungara frogs are attracted to males with complex songs but cannot tell the difference between elaborate songs and slightly more elaborate ones.
Let me back up. The philosopher Herbert Spencer turned Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection into a sound bite: “survival of the fittest.” But in his later book, “The Descent of Man,” Darwin had a second theory: sexual selection. The sound-bite version of sexual selection is “reproduction of the sexiest.”
In other words, some features of animals don’t help the individual to survive-and may even hinder its survival-but they do help it to reproduce, either by enabling it to compete against rivals or by attracting members of the opposite sex. Darwin’s idea of sexual selection by female choice was all but abandoned by biologists in the ensuing century. It seems that the idea of active female sexual discrimination made male biologists uncomfortable.
“Darwin posited the idea of sexual selection, the sound-bite version of which is ‘reproduction of the sexiest.’“
By the 1970s, however, a series of experiments had conclusively shown that Darwin was right and the ornaments, colors and songs of (mostly) males had been selected by the persistent and idiosyncratic preferences of (mostly) females. Once such a habit of sexual selection gets going, a female that bucks the trend risks having sons that cannot attract other mates.
In short, sexual selection seems to be a runaway process, like a nuclear chain reaction: The more it occurs, the more it will occur. Certainly it can produce bizarre results, burdening males with huge plumes, exhausting dances or arduous songs. But it does not seem to accelerate like a chain reaction. Peacocks’ tails are not getting bigger and bigger in each generation. They got big and then stopped.
The explanation seems to lie in the neuroscience of perception. As Mike Ryan of the University of Texas at Austin puts it, just as you can easily tell the difference between a pile of six oranges and a pile of five, but you cannot easily distinguish 100 oranges from 101 oranges, so a female tungara frog in Panama can tell the difference between a simple male song and an elaborate one, but not between an elaborate and a very elaborate one. The song has evolved to the limit of female discrimination.
An alternative explanation for the lack of runaway sexual selection is that predators knock off the most elaborately burdened males, counterbalancing the females’ pressure. But Dr. Ryan’s experiments with tungara frogs prove that this is not the case. The frog’s main predator is a bat, which homes in on the frog’s song, and the bat is like the female frog: It shows no preference for males whose songs are not just elaborate but very elaborate.
A recent paper by Roz Dakin and her colleagues at Queen’s University in Ontario comes to a similar conclusion about the plumage of peacocks. The difference between the best and the good peacock tail is too subtle for peahens to perceive. This news should encourage the great multitude of peacocks whose plumage is merely average.Continue reading →
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:
Hardly any subject in science has been so politically fraught as the heritability of intelligence. For more than a century, since Francis Galton first started speculating about the similarities of twins, nature-nurture was a war with a stalemated front and intelligence was its Verdun-the most hotly contested and costly battle.
The genes for intelligence are there, but there are thousands of them and each has only a tiny impact.
So would it not be rather wonderful if a scientific discovery came along that called a truce and calmed all the fury? I think this is about to happen. Call it the Goldilocks theory of intelligence: not too genetic, not too environmental-and proving that intelligence is impossible to meddle with, genetically.
The immediate cause of this optimism is arecent paper in Molecular Psychiatry, which confirms that genes account for about half of the difference in IQ between any two people in a modern society, but that the relevant genes are very numerous and the effect of each is very small.
There has always been a gap between the emphatic conclusions of the behavior geneticists studying twins and adoptees-yes, genes matter very much-and the equally emphatic conclusions of the molecular biologists using tools like quantitative trait analysis: No, we cannot find any particular genes that vary in concert with IQ.
It turns out the genetic differences may have been all just below the measurement radar. A new technique, which can now detect very slight genetic influences, has succeeded where the old techniques failed. The genes for intelligence are there, but there are thousands of them and each has only a tiny impact. To be clever you must have a good combination of the clever versions of lots and lots of genes. There is an evolutionary reason for this: Any gene difference with big effect is going to get grabbed by natural selection and quickly turned into a universal trait.
So the old terror, which so alarmed many psychologists and educationalists, that one day people-or governments-would use genes to decide whom to kill, sterilize or prevent being born because of their intelligence, suddenly looks a lot less scary. There are just too many genes.
People, and governments, did kill, sterilize and prevent people being born, for sure, but they were never able to use specific genes to justify their unscientific theories. In other words, it was ignorance about genetics, not knowledge of genetics, that made eugenics possible.
To be clever you must have a good combination of the clever versions of lots and lots of genes.
Nor is this the only happy outcome of intelligence research. Some of the more extreme “nurturists,” especially those who dominated the debate in the 1960s to 1980s, might not welcome the new confirmation of the nearly 50% role of genes in determining IQ differences, even though it has been blindingly clear for a long time now.
They should, though. A world in which intelligence is 100% genetic would be horribly unfair. But so would a world in which intelligence is 100% environmental. Think what it says about education: Bad luck, you went to a poor school, or had dud teachers, or neglectful parents, so you can never be clever. For an aspirational, meritocratic society, in which people can thrive despite their disadvantaged start, there absolutely must be a genetic element to talents of all kinds, but it must not be too big.
Intriguingly, the heritability of intelligence has probably been increasing in recent decades. The more we make sure everybody gets sufficient nutrition and education, the less these factors will determine differences in outcome, so the more differences in genes will determine the differences that remain. The fairer society becomes, the higher heritability will be.
The new results are just right for proving that education is not futile, but nor is it a life sentence. And that the genes that matter are so many and so slight in their impact that seeking them out for your children through genetic engineering will never be practical anyway. Now, isn’t that a happy result?Continue reading →
Latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:
Evolutionists long ago abandoned the idea that natural selection can promote only selfish behavior. In the right circumstances, animals-including human beings-evolve the instinct to be nice (or acquire habits of niceness through cultural evolution). This happens within families but also within groups, where social solidarity promotes the success of the group at the expense of other groups.
David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist who used his home town of Binghamton, N.Y., as a laboratory for his new book “The Neighborhood Project,” is a champion of this kind of “group selection.” He finds that “the most prosocial kids in Binghamton also received the most social support.” Like many statements in evolutionary psychology, this one is both obvious and profound, telling us what we knew anyway but also shocking us into realizing that our folk knowledge gives a particular insight into human nature.
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John S. Dykes
Dr. Wilson finds that, socially, humans give what they get and get what they give. In Binghamton, people who are “bathed in social support” from family, neighborhood, school, religion and extracurricular activities tend to score highly on questions about how much they help other people. They are also more likely to venture to trust others in experimental games.
There is an obvious policy implication: Give social support and you will create a better neighborhood. Dr. Wilson’s painstaking care in documenting the connection in real communities on the ground is worth any amount of assertion from politicians that this is the right thing to do. And he is right to see it as an instance of evolutionary “path dependence” (each step made possible by the previous one): “The idea that any species can be studied without reference to evolution is patently absurd.”
Like many other evolutionary biologists, Wilson sees the issue of cooperation in social, rather than economic, terms-that is, as a matter of generosity or altruism rather than of trade. Others in the field discuss ideas like “strong reciprocity”: the notion that successful societies implicitly agree to punish selfish behavior, thus enforcing norms of niceness.
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John S. Dykes
For me, this creates a problem, and Dr. Wilson unwittingly emphasizes it: The more evolution encourages niceness within groups, the more it produces nastiness between them. Dr. Wilson thinks “the future is bleak if we don’t turn our groups into organisms,” by which he means entities that emulate the team behavior of cells in a body. But surely the future is bleak if we do turn groups into such organisms. Consider gangs, armies, sports fans and companies, which have taken this advice-and, as a result, fight each other.
As Adam Smith pointed out, kindness works among friends and relatives, but for cooperation among strangers, human beings use a wholly different mechanism: a division of labor that encourages people to engage in mutual service. Plenty of other animals (from chimpanzees to ants) show cooperation within groups and proportionate antagonism between them, whereas none has exchange and specialization between strangers. History shows that it is trade that dissolves hostility between groups.
A few years ago, Joe Henrich of the University of British Columbia and his colleagues did a series of experiments in small-scale societies in the Amazon, New Guinea and Africa. They asked people to play the “ultimatum game,” in which a player must decide how much of a windfall he needs to share with another player to prevent the other player from exercising his right to veto the whole deal. The more the small-scale society is enmeshed in modern commerce, the more generous the offers people make. This may shock those who believe in Rousseau’s idea of the “noble savage,” but not those who believe in the virtues of what Montesquieu called “sweet commerce.”
Dr. Wilson does not discuss commerce as a source of cooperation in Binghamton, and he dislikes economics. So he misses the point that, though human beings do kind things unrewarded for their neighbors, for reward they also do kind things for strangers: They hand more cash to merchants than they do to beggars.
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I have a piece in today’s Times newspaper on extinction of species. Here it is, with added links:
The suitably named Dr Boris Worm, of Halifax, Nova Scotia, led the team that this week estimated the number of species on the planet at 8.7 million, plus or minus 1.3 million. That sounds about right. We human beings have described almost all the mammals, birds, butterflies and other conspicuous creatures, but new beetles, wasps, moths, flies and worms abound in every acre of tropical forest.
Some patterns are clear. Most species are on land; marine life, though just as abundant, is slightly less diverse. Most are in the humid tropics; the rest of the globe is an ecological footnote to the rainforest. Most are animals – though plants, fungi and microbes vastly outweigh us beasts, they tend to come in fewer kinds, perhaps because plants hybridise and bacteria swap genes, blurring the boundaries of species. Most are insects: spiders/mites and molluscs take silver and bronze, but if Planet Earth had a mascot, it would be a ground beetle.
Species come and go, lasting on average about a million years, scientists reckon. Islands are especially good species factories, evolution generating peculiar forms in isolation, as Charles Darwin spotted in the Galápagos. Lakes, being islands of water, are species factories for fish. Lake Victoria seems to have spawned some 500 species of cichlid fish from just a few ancestral species since it was last dry just 14,000 years ago. Some of these have now died out, after the introduction of predatory Nile perch.
Nobody quite knows what human beings are doing to the speciation rate, but in his paper Dr Worm makes the now routine claim that extinction rates are running at 100 or 1,000 times their normal rates, because of human interference. We are often told we are causing a “sixth mass extinction” similar to that wrought by the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. So what is the evidence for this claim?
One estimate of the species extinction rate – 27,000 a year – came from the biologist E. O. Wilson, of Harvard University, based on an assumption that habitat loss leads to predictable species loss through a mathematical relationship called the species-area curve. The trouble is, the theory is flawed.
A recent study by Stephen Hubbell and Fangliang He, of the University of California at Los Angeles, found that these “estimated” extinction rates are “almost always much higher than those actually observed” because destruction of forest habitat simply does not lead to proportionate species loss as predicted by the theory. In eastern America, in Puerto Rico and in the Atlantic rainforests of Brazil, more than 90 per cent of forest was extirpated, but the number of birds that died out locally were one, seven and zero respectively.
Another widely used estimate for the extinction rate – 40,000 species a year – came from Norman Myers, a British conservationist. Though often cited as if it were a scientific estimate, this number was more of an assumption. This is what Myers wrote in 1979: “Let us suppose that, as a consequence of this man-handling of natural environments, the final one quarter of this century witnesses the elimination of one million species – a far from unlikely prospect. This would work out, during the course of 25 years, at an average extinction rate of 40,000 species per year.” For more on Myers, see here.
There is no doubt that humans have caused a pulse of extinction, especially by introducing rats, bugs and weeds to oceanic islands at the expense of endemic species. Island species are often vulnerable to parasites, predators and competitors that continental species have evolved to cope with. Mauritius’s dodos, New Zealand’s moas, Madagascar’s elephant birds and many of Hawaii’s honeycreepers all succumbed to the introduction of rats, pigs, monkeys – and humans.
But now that most of these accidental introductions to islands have happened, the rate of extinctions is dropping, not rising, at least among birds and mammals. Bird and mammal extinctions peaked at 1.6 a year around 1900 and have since dropped to about 0.2 a year. Wilson’s 27,000 a year should be producing (pro rata) 26 bird and 13 mammal extinctions a year. Myers would predict even more.
Moreover, according to an analysis by the scholar Willis Eschenbach, of the 190 bird and mammal species that have gone extinct globally in the past 500 years, as recorded on the comprehensive list kept by the American Museum of Natural History, just nine were continental species (if you count Australia as an island, which in ecological terms it is).
They were, in chronological order: the bluebuck, the Labrador duck, the Algerian gazelle, the Carolina parakeet, the slender-billed grackle, the passenger pigeon, the Colombian grebe, the Atitlán grebe and the Omilteme cottontail rabbit. Only the last three vanished after the Second World War – and for all three there is some debate as to whether they were full species or sub-species. Not a single one of the nine went extinct because of forest loss or climate change. Most succumbed to hunting, or, in the case of grebes, introduced predatory fish.
Eschenbach says: “This lack of even one continental forest bird or mammal extinction, in a record encompassing 500 years of massive cutting, burning, harvesting, inundating, clearing and general widespread destruction and fragmentation of forests on all the continents of the world, provides a final and clear proof that the species-area relationship simply does not work to predict extinctions.”
There are plenty more species that are threatened, endangered and of concern, some of which are probably irretrievable. A desperate attempt is under way to take eggs from Siberian nests of the last 100 or so pairs of spoon-billed sandpipers and rear chicks in captivity. Yet, remarkably, we have doubled the human population since 1965 while reducing, rather than increasing, the extinction rate of wild species, especially in the most industrialised countries. It is now 167 years since a bird native to Europe went globally extinct (the great auk), though the slender-billed curlew is almost certainly now gone. Of course the extinction rate of lesser creatures than birds and mammals may be accelerating, but there is no hard evidence either way.
I am not denigrating the efforts of those who try to prevent extinctions. I have three times worked on projects to avert the extirpation of birds – the western tragopan, the cheer pheasant and the lesser florican, all still extant but rare. But the constant repetition of the baseless meme that we are causing a mass extinction 100 or 1,000 times as fast as the natural background extinction rate is counter-productive.
Rather, let us build on recent improvements. We now know that even the tiniest fragment of forest can be a refuge from which to rebuild an ecosystem. During this century, let us see if we can get the extinction rate not just low, but lower than it would naturally be, by saving species that might be going extinct naturally – and by resurrecting extinct species.
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Latest Wall Street Journal column is on how anti-virals outwit natural selection:
Draco, who wrote Athens’s first constitution in about 620 B.C., decreed that just about every crime should be punishable by death, because that was what petty criminals deserved and he could think of no harsher penalty for serious criminals. “Draconian” means indiscriminate as well as harsh.
So it is appropriate that the word “Draco” has been appropriated by the inventor of the first antiviral treatment that promises to work against all viruses. Until now, if antivirals worked at all, they were specific to particular viruses or even strains of virus: protease inhibitors for HIV, Tamiflu for some forms of flu and, of course, particular vaccines to prevent particular viral infections.
John S. Dykes
In this context, Draco stands for Double-stranded RNA Activated Caspase Oligomeriser. The “Dra” bit refers to a telltale sign of viral infection-double-stranded RNA molecules-while the “co” bit concerns the mechanism by which a cell commits suicide if so infected. In the lab,writes its inventor, Todd Rider of MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, “we have demonstrated that Dracos are effective against viruses with DNA, dsRNA, positive-sense ssRNA, and negative-sense ssRNA genomes; enveloped and nonenveloped viruses; viruses that replicate in the cytoplasm and viruses that replicate in the nucleus; human, bat and rodent viruses; and viruses that use a variety of cellular receptors.”
In other words, at the lab bench, just about any virus will get the death sentence from Draco-from the petty rhinovirus that causes the common cold to the homicidal dengue fever. That’s draconian. Moreover, it does not just seem to work in cells in a petri dish: In live mice infected with H1N1 influenza, Draco cured the animals. It sounds very promising, though there is much safety and efficacy testing to go before it can be given to patients.
Given that Dr. Rider’s Draco combines some of our existing molecular tricks in a new configuration, it raises a question that often nags at me when miracle cures are discovered within the body itself: If it works so well, why didn’t evolution equip our cells with it as a defense against disease? Interferon, for instance, was hailed as a cancer cure two decades ago, though in due course it proved disappointing.
Those cures that do not disappoint, like antibiotics, are foreign to our cells’ metabolism. Penicillin was the special bacterium-killing invention of a fungus, so we had to wait until Alexander Fleming left the laboratory window open in 1928 before we could borrow it as a medicine.
What is new in Dr. Rider’s approach is to link the “Dra” to the “co.” Why did natural selection not think of that itself in some ancestral mammal?
I don’t know the answer. Most of the viruses that cause serious disease disable our native defense mechanisms. They may target the double-strand recognition system or the cell-suicide pathway (or both). A virus usually keeps a cell from killing itself by interfering with the start of the chain of cause and effect that leads to suicide, whereas Dr. Rider has used a later link to keep that mechanism on-a link that viruses mostly do not attack.
Most likely, the evolutionary explanation for Dr. Rider’s ability to do better than Mother Nature is that there is no way to get there from here. Inside the normal cell, the “Dra” bit is just so separate and different from the “co” bit that no accidental mutation has ever put them together.
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My TED talk on When Ideas Have Sex has now passed 750,000 views.Continue reading →