Category Archives: Space & Science

Space | science | earth | universe | NASA

DNA As Our Soul: Don’t Believe the Advertising

The ad for Ancestry.com’s DNA testing company is not only selling me a service, it is selling me an ideology: Submitting my DNA, it said, you would “answer, once and for all, what it is that makes you, you.” Really? DNA makes me me? This is pseudo-scientific garbage. DNA is the score, not the performance. Who we are – as opposed to what we are – depends on upbringing, education, what’s in the environment, opportunities for physical and intellectual growth, and just plain luck.

Twins start off with the same DNA, but they can become be quite different. I was present when Stephen J. Gould filmed a television broadcast in front of the death cast of Eng and Chang Bunker, the “original” Siamese twins. Eng and Chang were very different people – Chang became an aggressive fellow who liked strong drink, while the Eng was a mild-mannered teetotaler. And these two businessmen shared not only a liver and a circulatory system; they shared their genomes (they were identical twins) and, by force, they had to share the same environment. What makes us “us” is a very complex mixture of genes, environment, and experience.

But we hear over and over again, “DNA makes us who we are.” We are even told this by our car ads! We hear that “superior handling is in the DNA of every German sport coupe“! The “red-blooded attitude” of the Jeep Compass is “genetically engineered” to take that DNA places no one has seen before. A decade ago, the ad for the midsized Hummer had the tagline, “Same DNA. Smaller Chromosomes.” In other words, the size may be smaller, but the essence hasn’t changed. Biologically, this makes no sense. DNA had become our essence, perhaps even our soul.

I’m not saying anything new to sociologists. They have known this ever since Susan Lindee and Dorothy Nelkin wrote DNA Mystique exactly 20 years ago. These researchers warned us that we were creating “sacred DNA.”

And they were correct. We are starting to believe our advertising. Governor Michael Huckabee claims “we clearly know that that baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception. The reason we know that it is is because of the DNA schedule that we now have clear scientific evidence on.” However, there’s no such schedule. Carly Fiorina says, “Science is on our side. It shows … the DNA on the day that we die is the same DNA we had as a zygote.” Actually, it isn’t.

There’s no such thing as a “DNA schedule,” and the DNA that we die with is actually different from the DNA with we come into the world. Identical twins start off with the same DNA, but as they get older, their DNAs diverge. That is because DNA is modified by experience and by chance.

The science of epigenetics has told us this over the past twenty years. We can see the effects of environment on the DNA of laboratory animals. The DNA of genetically identical rats, for instance, is altered by whether or not the mother rat gives it attention during the first week of its life. Certain genes become methylated (having small organic molecules attached to them), and the result is a marked change in anxious and sexual behaviors. In genetically identical mice, DNA is altered by chemicals (including food) that the mouse experiences while in the uterus. And this exposure, too, can have both physical and behavioral consequences.

DNA is altered by experience, and what we receive at fertilization does not predict who we will be. We shouldn’t believe our advertising. DNA a chemical. It is not our “essence.” It is certainly not our soul. Fertilization is when we get our DNA. This DNA will help build our hearts and guts. It will make sure our eyes are only in our heads and not in our butts. And it constructs a brain that can learn and change, a brain that allows us, as geneticist Barton Childs noted, “to escape the tyranny of our genes.”

DNA does not tell us who we will become. Republican presidential candidates and anti-abortion activists can often be seen bowing to an image of sacred DNA, an idol reinforced by our advertising, not by our science.

— This feed and its contents are the property of The Huffington Post, and use is subject to our terms. It may be used for personal consumption, but may not be distributed on a website.



Teens With Tons Of Facebook Friends More Likely To Be Stressed

Facebook can help friends stay connected and may even boost an individual’s self-esteem. But researchers at the University of Montreal recently found that the social network may play a role in negatively affecting teens when it comes to their stress levels.

As it turns out, having more friends isn’t always better. In a study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, researchers found that once teens exceeded 300 friends, their levels of the stress hormone cortisol tended to be higher than teens who had fewer than 300 friends. 

In the experiment, 88 participants aged 12 to 17 were asked about their Facebook use, including how often they visited the site, how many friends they had, how they promoted themselves on the network and how they supported their friends online. Cortisol samples were also collected from the adolescents four times a day for three days, and the researchers found that teens with more than 300 Facebook pals showed consistently higher levels of cortisol. 

Of course, Facebook isn’t the only stress hormone-raising factor in an adolescent’s life; there’s puberty, homework and the requisite schoolyard drama in play.

“While other important external factors are also responsible, we estimated that the isolated effect of Facebook on cortisol was around 8 percent,” professor Sonia Lupien, the study’s lead author, said in a statement. ”We were able to show that beyond 300 Facebook friends, adolescents showed higher cortisol levels.”

While outside the scope of this study, it’s well documented that elevated cortisol levels can be dangerous over time. One previous study found that experiencing excessive stress as a young teen is often a predictor of depression later in adolescence

“We did not observe depression in our participants. However, adolescents who present high stress hormone levels do not become depressed immediately; it can occur later on,” Lupien said. “Some studies have shown that it may take 11 years before the onset of severe depression in children who consistently had high cortisol levels.”

Teens who are big Facebook users tend to have narcissistic qualities and receive lower grades in school, according to previous research that assessed depressive symptoms. Experts say that talking to kids at an early age about the do’s and dont’s of social media can help minimize some adverse effects of online networks. 

Related on HuffPost:

— This feed and its contents are the property of The Huffington Post, and use is subject to our terms. It may be used for personal consumption, but may not be distributed on a website.



Genomics — The Future of Forensic DNA Profiling

Genomics is the scientific study of the molecular instructions encoded in your cells. It maps your entire genetic structure. Till now, forensic science has focused on only identifying your cell’s nuclei signature — your inner DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and, to a degree, your outer miDNA (mitochondrial DNA) — not your genes. The old method of forensically profiling your biological fingerprint by DNA analysis is being replaced by a computerized 3D genome recreation of your entire being.

Genomics is a concept first developed in the 1970’s. It led to the Human Genome Project (HGP) being completed in 2003. The HGP was a massive international research venture that sequenced and mapped all of the human cell genes — together known as the genome. The HGP gave us the ability to read nature’s complete genetic blueprint for building a human being. Like you.

So what’s a genome?

A genome is the whole ensemble of your genetic material. It’s the molecular guide of your DNA, your chromosomes, and your genes that describes how to make your cells. It’s the instruction manual for your body. That book is your genome and the study of that book is termed genomics. It’s pretty much a math exercise. And it’s deadly stuff for identifying criminals with.

Let’s take a quick look at your biology.

Deoxyribonucleic acid is the chemical compound that contains the instructions to develop and direct your life as an organism. DNA molecules are made of two twisting, paired strands, often referred to as a double helix.

Each DNA strand is made of four chemical units, called nucleotide bases, which comprise the genetic “alphabet”. The bases are adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C). Bases on opposite strands pair specifically — an A always pairs with a T — a C always pairs with a G. The order of the As, Ts, Cs, and Gs determines the meaning of the information encoded in that part of a DNA molecule. It’s just like the order of letters determine the meaning of a word, only DNA is written out in a barcode locus.

Every single cell in your body contains a complete copy of the 3.2 billion DNA base pairs, or letters, that code your human genome.

DNA’s four-letter language contains information needed to build your physical body. A gene refers to the unit of DNA that carries the instructions for making a specific protein, or set of proteins, and there are 23,000 genes in your genome code. Each gene directs an average of three proteins.

If you could peer inside your cells, you’d see your genome contained in 46 tightly packed bundles of DNA — 23 came from your mother and 23 from your father. These DNA bundles, called chromosomes, provide instructions that enable a one-cell embryo to develop into a 100 trillion-cell adult. So, every time the human body produces a sperm or an egg, 3 billion DNA letters must be copied and packaged so they can be passed along to future offspring.

Humans come in many shapes and sizes, but we’re all very similar at the DNA level. In fact, the genomes of any two people are more than 99% the same. Still, the tiny fraction of the genome that varies among humans is critical when it comes to forensically identifying a particular individual. DNA variations are part of what makes each of us unique, but it’s in the genes that the real difference lies. They direct what you look like
.
Okay. Enough of the biology lecture. How is genomics gonna catch some crooks?

It’s not just genomics. Science now has a great handle on how your DNA is formed and how your genes fine-tune your uniqueness. The problem has been in how to process a staggering forensic workload that has bottlenecked the crime labs and the courts — and how to put a face and a name to an unidentified DNA profile.

The answer lies in genomic computerization. The good news is that technological progress is being made faster than anyone ever dreamed possible. Now the labs are looking at your entire genome package for identification, not just at that little bit of nucleic or mitochondrial DNA which is dirty, volatile, and time-consuming stuff to process.

Advancements in computerized processing are allowing crime labs to build an entire picture of you as a suspect — not just an impersonal, academic graph of the matching points in either your biological evidence sample that you left behind at the scene or your known reference sample that investigators obtained from you.

Think about how many cold cases there are where the investigators have a clear DNA profile of you as the perpetrator, but they have absolutely no clue what you look like. They have no idea whether you’re young or old, black or white, have green eyes or brown. They don’t know your hair color or texture. They don’t know if you’re tall or short. And, in some cases, they don’t know if you’re male or female.

Genomic profiling is going to change the game. Computers will speed it up.

Illumina Corporation of San Diego is a world leader in Forensic Genomic technology. They’ve developed a process called Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) that can simultaneously analyze every locus-point in a traditional DNA barcode using less than 1 nanogram of a sample in a fraction of traditional turn-around time that it’s currently taking.

Illumina is also at the forefront of developing the new cornerstone of contemporary forensic science — being able to generate a physical description of the DNA’s donor based on their genome profile.

Consider the ramifications. It’s not only going to assist in solving current cases. It’s going to give a physical look at the perpetrators of cold cases. Identify found remains with no names. Help in sorting disaster victims. And make accurate aging estimations for missing children.

The speed and accuracy of forensic genomic profiling will have a far-reaching effect on the costs in the criminal justice system. Faster and higher rates of identification will remove more dangerous offenders from society and the reliability of their forensic identifications will result in less trial time. It will reduce investigator workload in chasing blind leads. And it will, undoubtedly, save lives.

I think we’re in a fascinating time, watching technological advancements in forensic sciences. Genomic profiling is a fantastic breakthrough. We’re close to the day when your tiny biological dropping at the scene of your crime will go into a machine, the button pressed, and not just will your virtual mugshot come out — it’ll build a full-color, 3D image of your entire person right from your molecules to your moles.

Yes, science has come a long, long way in understanding how your human genome instruction book is written.

God knows who wrote it.

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and forensic coroner, now best-selling crime writer. He lives on Vancouver Island on Canada’s west coast and hosts a popular blog at www.DyingWords.net.

— This feed and its contents are the property of The Huffington Post, and use is subject to our terms. It may be used for personal consumption, but may not be distributed on a website.



More Sex Is Better, But Only Up To A Point

People generally agree that a happy romantic relationship is also a sexual one, but past research hasn’t made clear how much sex, exactly, is best. Does sex have a limitless effect on happiness, as in, the more sex you have the happier you are? Or is there a cap after which the stress from trying to hit a certain number cancels out any happiness benefits the sex confers? 

Proponents of daily sex challenges – and there are a surprising number of these challenges, in which spouses commit to a roll in the hay every day for a certain period of time — claim daily sex can recharge desire and make for a happier marriage.

While this approach may have worked for some couples (notably, the ones who wrote books about it), new research suggests that there are limits to how much happiness is linked to sex. New research published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that once couples are having sex about once a week, personal happiness and happiness in the relationship begins to level off 

Lead author Amy Muise, a sex and romance researcher at the University of Toronto Mississauga, says it’s a good reminder for couples not to feel pressured to live up to a certain “number” when it comes to sex frequency. 

“In general it is important to maintain a sexual connection with a romantic partner, but it is also important to have realistic expectations for one’s sex life, given that many couples are busy with work and responsibilities,” she told HuffPost. “Our research suggests that engaging in regular sex is associated with happiness, but it is not necessary, on average, for couples to aim to engage in sex as frequently as possible.” 


What research says about sex and happiness

To see if the happiest couples were also the ones having the most sex, Muise conducted three studies. The first, which drew data from a 23-year study of over 25,000 people, found that more sex is linked to higher levels of happiness, but only until the frequency reaches about once a week. However, this relationship between happiness and sex held true only for people in relationships; for singletons, the statistical relationship between sex and happiness was not significant.

The second, in which Muise recruited 335 ethnically diverse participants in an online survey, confirmed the first study’s results. But to put the sex-happiness relationship in context, she also decided to see how much of an effect annual household income had on participants’ general happiness. She found that the happiness difference between monthly sex and weekly sex was actually more dramatic than the happiness difference between earning $15,000-$25,000 and earning $50,000-$75,000. In other words, weekly sex paid off more in happiness than actually getting paid more.

The final study, which included data from a 14-year study of 2,400 married couples, again found that sex was linked to higher levels of satisfaction with the relationship, but only until they had sex about once a week.


Don’t feel bad about your ‘number’

Several long-term studies suggest that once-a-week sex actually is the norm for most established couples. Muise says there’s no research about whether couples are happy about this, or if the couples even know this is the average frequency. One possible explanation for this number is that people might intuitively feel that any more sex would just result in diminishing returns, but that has yet to be tested, Muise explained. 

People have tested sex frequency’s impact on happiness experimentally. For a 2015 paper, researchers recruited 128 couples, divided them randomly and then asked one group of couples to double their sexual frequency, while asking the other couple group to continue as usual. The couples who doubled their pleasure didn’t report any greater levels of happiness. In fact, they actually experienced less happiness, and their enjoyment of sex went down. 

At the time, the researchers suggested that being told to have more sex may be what detracted from the experience, but Muise points out that the couples in the study were already having sex, at baseline about once a week, before being asked to double it. 

For couples struggling to juggle work, children and other responsibilities, the misconception that they’re not having “enough” sex could be daunting or stressful. Muise’s findings, on the other hand, suggest that “people may be able to engage in sex frequently enough to maximize their well-being without aiming to engage in sex as frequently as possible,” as she says.

Based on her findings, she suggested a re-write of that famous John Updike quip: “Sex may be like money — only too little is bad.”

Also on HuffPost: 

— This feed and its contents are the property of The Huffington Post, and use is subject to our terms. It may be used for personal consumption, but may not be distributed on a website.