What I think we need

us-constitution-pdf-logoI frequently see “What we should really do is…” memes, and talk about related things. Some of my most popular posts are related to ‘culture war’ issues like Duck Dynasty and Cliven Bundy. Still, what I think we really need as a people has little to do with these issues directly. That’s because I think they are symptoms of a deeper problem, of certain deficiencies in our laws and oversights in our Constitution which, with 235 years of hindsight, we ought to fix. They aren’t immediately obvious, so they aren’t controversial. They don’t get people juiced up and don’t Rock The Vote, but I think they can really help. Here they are:

Amendment XXVIII (28) [Truth in Politics]

Section 1.

Freedom of speech shall not protect false statements by the President, Vice President, Congressmen, Senators, or any other official appointed or elected within any branch of government or any candidate for such office, for statements made in the public interest or in the course of a campaign to be elected to those positions, except where there is a risk of substantial harm for doing so or substantial risk of revealing state secrets. Issue campaigns; lobbying efforts on behalf of or directed toward public officials or the public as a whole; and support for news media shall be public and transparent; all donations shall be registered with an appropriate body and be in plain view of the public, and be made in a manner that it is clear and unambiguous.

Section 2.

All campaigns for office within the Federal government shall only be funded by the Federal government; no private donations of any kind shall be allowed. The funds for such campaigns shall be divided equally among the Executive and Legislative branch, then equally among the Senate and House of Representatives. Equal funding shall then be given to all candidates for office within the Legislative Branch as are registered by that state’s laws, and who appear on the ballot for office within that state. Candidates must appear on the ballot of a number of states such that the total population of those states is a majority of the national population, or the collective electoral votes is a majority of all electoral votes, in order to receive this funding when they are a candidate for a position within the Executive Branch.

Amendment XXIX (29) [Representative government]

Section 1.

Each candidate for President shall be entitled to choose a number of electors in each state equivalent to the percentage of voters within that state who cast ballots in favor of that candidate.

Section 2.

The House of Representatives shall be drawn from districts that shall themselves be composed of either a whole municipality or a contiguous collection of whole counties. The former shall be used for all municipalities where the population exceeds that state’s number of representatives divided by its whole population. The latter method shall be applied such that their total population is as near as possible to the number of representatives in that state divided by its whole population. When the former is used, an electoral method allowing for multiple winners of a single election shall be used, and applied in a manner that faithfully represents the wishes of as many voters as possible. These districts shall be redrawn by the foregoing rules on a decennial basis, pursuant to the results of the Census.

Amendment XXX (30) [Constraining government abuses]

Section 1.

State secrets shall, when alleged at trial as a defense for the actions of a government actor and as requested by the presiding judge, be revealed by the government to the judge in private, to the extent they are relevant to the events of the trial. If the judge does not meet the qualifications for such, then the case shall be either moved to a more appropriate body if possible, or declared a mistrial. In the case of a jury trial, the judge shall instruct the jury on the disposition and applicability of such secrets if so ordered.

Section 2.

The laws, rights, and procedures within this Constitution shall not be amended or restricted during wartime except through explicit declaration by Congress, and only within and in furtherance of that declared war. Congress may further only declare war against an established nation; all other actions shall be police actions, and shall thereby respect the laws of the nations they occur within if those nations are not subject to a declared war with the United States. When it is reasonable to do so, the rights and protections of the Constitution shall be afforded to all persons interacting with the Federal government, regardless of citizenship status, place of residence or any intrinsic factor.

Jake Rush, and the Media as the new Jack Chick

Biased Editing 101

Just today, I saw a news item that hit me in a somewhat personal way. The man pictured above, Jake Rush, is running for U.S. Congress in Florida’s 3rd Congressional district. You might think certain things on seeing the picture on the right – weird, gothic, freak, outcast, deranged, maybe even dangerous – and I’d like to talk about that for a minute, about how the media went WAY into left field, and intentionally so, on this one.

First, this article seemed to start it all. It is from a blogging site in the district in which he is running, it looks like, and the article can be charitably described as a “takedown” piece – that is, one meant to do damage to his public life and Congressional prospects. A more accurate description might be a “nearly slanderous pile of trash.” Several others have followed on Huffington Post, Vanity Fair, The Miami Herald and the Sunshine State News. They have been various shades of unfair or silly, occasionally substantive or useful, but all have suffered from being derivative works based upon the original article linked at the top of this paragraph.

Now, before I go on, I want to dispel some illusions. I am not a supporter of Jake Rush. I don’t like him, I found his behavior in the Camarilla/MES to be various shades of stupid, unfair, immoral or unpleasant, and were he running to be my Congressman he would not have my vote unless his opponent were Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh, or the equivalent. He is running to the right of the Tea Party, and I’m somewhat to the left of the Democratic Party, so we don’t get along.

His politics are not what is being attacked, however. His hobbies are, and they are being attacked in a way that very much reminds me of certain tracts I once read by Jack Chick. That man once wrote a pamphlet (that you can find after the last link) called “Dark Dungeons” in which he uncovers the evils of Dungeons & Dragons, how it encourages the occult, devil worship, casting spells, and teen suicide. The rhetoric of Saint Petersblog sinks to this level and stays there. It plays on misconceptions and misunderstandings, perpetuates biases and stereotypes, and mischaracterizes him in the worst way. It’s frankly quite sickening. There ought to be plenty to attack him on without resorting to this sort of rhetoric, and that they have shows at best a certain laziness on their part and at worst an intent to deceive or distract that makes them undeserving of a place in any legitimate news media.

Vampire role-playing games grew out of vampire fiction, and have been a part of the collective imagination for a very long time. Even before Bram Stoker wrote Dracula or Anne Rice wrote Interview with the Vampire, the vampire or something very much like it has been a part of the collective imagination. That people should want to explore that, that people should make it their hobby, is not “bizarre” or even noteworthy. The “Twilight Saga,” as groan-inducing as it is in some circles, proves that vampires have a very widespread appeal. Even 50 Shades of Grey, which is not explicitly about vampires, was inspired by vampires because it was originally composed as fanfiction (amateur short stories written by fans, based in the universe or on characters of some popular work of fiction) based on the aforementioned “Twilight Saga.”

If my readers want me to, I’d be happy to break down the (many) factual errors in the Saint Petersblog article about Jake Rush, but I don’t know if the investment of time is worth it right now because it would be substantial. At first blush however, this reminds me somewhat of a certain media explosion in the mid 90s, the Roderick Ferrell case. In this tragic case, a mentally-unbalanced young man carried out several murders in Florida and tried to make it to New Orleans, all under the delusion that he was a vampire. He was insane, clearly, but instead of delving into this fact and understanding that insanity will find an outlet the media examined the question of whether the role-playing game Vampire: the Masquerade was dangerous in and of itself. This assertion is ridiculous, for the same reason that the accusations of Patricia Pulling about Dungeons & Dragons are ridiculous, because so many people who play that game do so little (I in fact played this game, and though some may think me a little weird I think I’m quite sane thankyouverymuch). In fact, I’d be willing to bet a reasonable sum f money that there are fewer people per capita that commit capital crimes and play Dungeons & Dragons or any role-playing game, than who commit capital crimes and watch football or basketball or baseball or soccer or hockey or NASCAR.

If you want to attack the man’s politics, go ahead. To take what he said while playing a character as his own words, however, is the same as judging any Hollywood actor by the things a character of his once said. Would you attack Mel Gibson because of his role in “Payback?” Would you attack Samuel L. Jackson because of his role in “Pulp Fiction?” Would you attack Robin Williams because of his role in “One Hour Photo?” Would you attack Ronald Regan because of his role in “The Killers?” Would you attack Arnold Schwarzeneggar because of his role in “Predator?” I wouldn’t, and I don’t condone it of anyone else.

Attacks like these perpetuate a misunderstanding and a stereotype, and they do great harm to kids all over the country. The very kids who are marginalized, who are “geeks” or “outcasts,” who seek an escape from these games, grow into lawyers and aspiring Congressmen, police officers and military officers, in my case into scientists and engineers. Calling them weird is grade school bullying, and it is unbecoming of adult discourse. Find better reasons to attack him; I don’t doubt they exist. I can even give you a few if you ask nicely. If you don’t alienate everyone he ever associated with in the Camarilla by keeping up this line of attack, I’m sure you’ll find their memories improve greatly and you’ll not have to troll Wikipedia for your character research. So do yourself a favor, Saint Petersblog, and give up on this line of attack.

A Knight’s Tale: The Untold Story

black_prince

How Kings do Business: Royal Betrayal in A Knight’s Tale

Before we begin, I want to state up front that this is a work of fiction. It isn’t the actual story – but I think you’ll agree with me, it would be awesome if it were. It isn’t even the story I think they intended, it’s just what I saw peering between the cracks. I’ve seen A Knight’s Tale literally hundreds of times, and it’s nice to see something new in it.

In the movie, we meet a few memorable noble figures. One is Adhemar, Count of Anjou. Another is Jocelyn, Princess of Navarre. Another is Edward, Black Prince f Wales and Crown Prince of England. Before I go on, lets unmask this rogue’s gallery.

Edward is easy. He’s a major historical figure in his own right. But he provides a bit of context and substantiation of one of the dates in the film. That date is 1370, the year of his return to England. He returned to England because of the Treaty of Bretigney, which temporarily ended the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. It ended with a major French defeat, and marked the height of England’s power within France.

As part of the treaty, certain French nobles agreed to enter ‘custodial care’ in England as collateral for France paying its debt to the victor. Among them was Louis I, Duke of Anjou. He is the closest and most reasonable historical facsimile to Adhemar, and there are a few good reasons to think that. First, in his lifetime he was known also as the Count of Anjou before being promoted by the King of France. Second, he is Duke at the time of the movie. Third, he has close dealings with Edward, the Black Prince, being his hostage. Now, hostage takes a little explaining here. Being a noble hostage in these times did not equate to being kept in a closet. It was expected that if your captor was honorable – and Edward was honorable – then you would be treated according to your station, which frequently meant the ability to move about and frequent travel with or in your captor’s entourage. We see exactly this in the movie.

Here is where the betrayal sets in. Historically, the Duke of Anjou escaped captivity and returned to France, only to be ordered on pain of dishonor to go back into custody and pay his debts. In order to pay those debts he needed money. Enter Jocelyn, the Princess of Navarre, presumably the daughter of King Charles II of Navarre. There is no solid historical analogue of her character in the historical record, but if we assume a little bit and pencil the rest in, a story starts to emerge. In 1369, just before the start of the movie, King Charles conspired with John V, Duke of Brittany to form a mutual defense treaty, effectively aligning himself with the French King by making an alliance with a noble who was both loyal to France and a direct traitor to the King of England. Jocelyn is Princess under these conditions and is a lovely jewel that, if captured, could be of great benefit to any man seeking an alliance with her father (yes, I know, this is fairly anti-feminist. It isn’t an unreasonable take on the attitudes of the day, though). Edward wants that alliance, but can’t have it himself because it would be an alliance with a traitor and that looks weak. Louis (Adhemar) wants that, because it will mean he can curry favor and perhaps leverage his freedom. And, of course, William wants that because he loves Jocelyn.

At one point, Adhemar says boastfully that he has “entered into negotiations with [Jocelyn’s] father” to make her his bride. It is possible that as quietly as it was said, someone in Edward’s entourage heard Adhemar saying that and reported it to him. This would have told Edward two useful things:

1. Adhemar plans to marry the Princess of Navarre and will try to use that as leverage to avoid paying his debt and/or secure his freedom.

2. That William also loves Jocelyn. If he didn’t, why would Adhemar have used that as a barb in the first place?

Knowing the second, Edward hatches a plan. First, Edward places Adhemar in command of the Free Companies. Then he sets him loose on France, in order to disrupt his alliance with King Charles by forcing him to fight Frenchmen. Because the Free Companies do not follow the codes of chivalry and honor, though, and because Adhemar allows them to pillage madly, he grows wealthy by feasting on the spoils of war. Thus, Edward has to disband the Free Companies, lest he lose his mercenary commander because he grows rich enough to buy his freedom. He recalls him to England, and there hatches his second treachery.

Over the summer, he’d been allowing Sir William Thatcher / Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein to grow more and more skilled and noteworthy at the joust. With each victory and tournament championship he got new armor, a new horse, new gear and new confidence. At just the moment he becomes “on a horse, with a lance, unbeatable” Edward disbands the Free Companies and goes to tournament, knowing that Adhemar will have to go with him and will naturally compete.

Adhemar proves canny and self-aware at this moment, because instead of fighting a superior opponent honorably on the jousting arena, he defeats him by exposing his secret fraud. He exposes that Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein is nothing but a commoner in disguise, nothing but a fraud. Rather than accepting defeat at this moment, Edward decides to move more openly and capitalize on an opportunity.

As William Thatcher is exposed, at this darkest moment, his old friend Edward comes as a friend. On the surface, Edward’s decision to knight William makes no sense. The dichotomy between nobility and commoner is one of the best forms of social control available to royalty in these times, so it would take a powerful inducement for him to set that aside. However, if we look more closely, we see exactly that.

By knighting William, Edward gains several things. One, he reactivates his best weapons against Adhemar’s growing prestige. Two, he enables William – now firmly an English noble, not a mere Flemish nobody – to have the credentials to marry Jocelyn, keeping her father from forming a more permanent alliance with John V and thus weakening English control of France. Three, he gains prestige for both himself and his court, confirming that the most valorous knight in the world is English (not Flemish; of London not Gelderland) and that he will himself be seen as progressive and merciful for helping a man in his darkest hour. So he benefits personally, financially (through Adhemar’s continued ransom payments), and politically. A win all around. So in a way, his decision was not only good strategy, it was inevitable.

Then, in a desperate last bid for power, Adhemar cheats. He breaks the code of the joust and tips his lance, then because of this he brings Sir Thatcher to deal to him the greatest disgrace – he defeats Adhemar while wearing no armor at all, showing him that he isn’t the least bit afraid of Adhemar’s power. That is a terrible strategic move on Sir Thatcher’s part, but it work out, punctuated by his screaming “William” – an exclamation which, like the choice to knight him in the first place, is both seemingly inexplicable and ultimately sensible in context.

Because, you see, with Edward’s help, this nobody-knight William defeated him. He was defeated by a name, a story, a boy. William.

It really makes a whole lot more sense, I think.

Genetic Engineering in our Daily Lives (pt. 2)

In the last installment, we discussed the history of genetic engineering and how we got from the discovery of DNA’s structure to approximately 1980. The focus of this installment will be to get us to the present moment, and in so doing to shed some light on and thereby demystify the process of making genetically engineered organisms somewhat. This isn’t meant to provide you with the technical understanding required to do genetic engineering yourself – that is the focus of some peoples’ whole careers – but to help you to in general terms understand what goes into foods or other items that have been genetically engineered, how they are different from their un-engineered counterparts, and also to provide you with a framework to understand the complexities that are inherent in some of the issues that surround regulating genetically engineered organisms in our foods, medicine, and so on.

Vocabulary of Genetic Engineering

Just like last installment began with a discussion of GE and GMO and why it is important to distinguish between the two, we need to start now with discussing some vocabulary. Unlike last time, I just need to familiarize you with some terms, because I can’t really avoid using them and keep true to my subject matter. This glossary assumes a high school level understanding of Biology; if that’s not where you’re at, feel free to ask for clarification and I will endeavor to provide it.

  • DNA, RNA and Protein: These are the three basic steps in what is called the “Central Dogma” of molecular biology, or the three steps in the normal transition of genetic information into functional information. It normally works that DNA is kind of like a cell’s 4D blueprints, kept behind protective barriers inside the nucleus so that it wont be altered, because in the DNA is stored the final information on all (or much of) of a cell’s inherent programming. That inherent information is then translated into a an RNA-based “working copy,” and then that is translated into a protein. Protein is the actual actor in this process, normally; all of the other steps are just there for quality control, basically. This is all oversimplified, also, but that is the basic overview of the process.
  • cis- and trans-genic: We see these prefixes thrown about in all sorts of settings, these days. They got their start, for the most part, in chemistry. In that context, cis- meant “on the same side of the molecule [as each other]” and trans- meant “on the opposite side of the molecule [from each other]”. In molecular biology, they are used a little differently. They are, rather than descriptions of chemical structure, instead a description of two major types of genetic engineering. Cis-genic engineering is the engineered alteration of an organism by adding DNA from another population with which that organism can normally interbreed – so, adding wheat DNA to wheat, corn DNA to corn, fruitfly DNA to fruitflies, and so on. Trans-genic engineering is the engineered alteration of an organism by adding DNA from some other organism the source cannot normally breed with – so, adding jellyfish DNA to tuna, or fish DNA to tomatoes, or bacterial DNA to plants.
  • Replication, Transcription, Translation: These are three cellular processes that are very important to genetic engineering. Replication is the process that DNA undergoes in order to reproduce accurately and be sorted into daughter cells. Transcription is the process whereby DNA is turned into readable RNA, often with the intent to turn that RNA into protein. Translation is the last step, the use of an RNA template to drive the creation of a protein with a defined sequence and structure. We name these differently because, although they sound quite similar, they are in fact completely distinct processes in the cell that are each incredibly complicated.
  • Promoters, Enhancers, and Inhibitors: These are three major kinds of genetic sequences that govern transcription. The first of the three directs your cell to transcribe the DNA next to it, at a specific time and under a specific condition. This direction can be as general as “all the time, everywhere” to “in between 8 and 14 years of age inside the pituitary gland” or “whenever I eat lots of sugar”. The second of the three, Enhancers, are basically there to amplify transcription at a certain place and time. Promoters establish an on/off level of transcription, called a “basal” level, where Enhancers tweak that by as much as 100- or 1000-fold in a given place, at a given time. Inhibitors do the opposite. They turn off or turn down the transcription of a certain gene at a certain time/place/condition, either back to the basal level or off entirely.
  • mRNA, tRNA, rRNA, and ds/ssRNA: RNA is a funny critter. It plays many different roles in the cell, which means that it basically plays some part in every role in the transition between DNA and protein. mRNA (messenger RNA) is the “working copy” mentioned earlier, it carries the actual genetic information that is then turned into a protein. rRNA  (ribosomal RNA) is part of the scaffolding on the cellular machinery that drives translation, which is also made up of quite a bit of protein. tRNA (transfer RNA) is the carrier and gatekeeper for the building blocks that make up your proteins, and it is tRNA that does the grunt work of making sure that the right amino acids are inserted in the right sequence into the growing chain that is a protein. The last two kinds, “ds” and “ss” are chemical categories, being abbreviations of “double stranded” and “single stranded”. All normal, working RNA in your body is single stranded; if RNA is ever bonded into a double stranded state, your body basically recognizes it as broken and breaks it down to its constituent nucleotides on the spot, to reclaim the spare parts that would otherwise be wasted.

Glossary of Genetic Engineering Schemes

Rather than go through each of the hundreds of kinds of genetically engineered organisms out there, I’m going to focus on giving you a basic understanding of the various schemes and strategies used in genetic engineering and how they each affect the organism, so that you can more faithfully analyze and more completely understand what it is you’re looking at, when you’re reading an article about genetically modified corn or rice or sugar beets, later on.

Classical trans-genic engineering

This is what most people think of, when they think of genetic engineering. Classical trans-genic engineering is the addition to an organism of trans-genic DNA – so, the addition of something like the DNA of a jellyfish into the DNA of a rice plant. This has been used most often to move resistance traits – genes that confer resistance to things like drought, heat, Roundup, or infestation by certain insects – from one plant to another, so that you can easily and (relatively) swiftly make a plant that is both nutritious and resistant to certain herbicides, or that is both fast-growing and resistant to certain diseases like blight or wheat rust. It is done by taking an entire gene (which includes the part that is translated, a part that tells it when and where to turn on, and usually a couple of parts that helped the gene be moved by the scientists in the first place) out of a host organism, putting it into a mechanism of some kind (the mechanism varies with the organism), and using that mechanism to insert it whole-cloth into the target organism. Sometimes this has to be done several times, in order to insert “helper” genes that improve the function of the primary gene, or to transfer additional traits to the target organism.

Once the DNA has been inserted into the target genome and the target has reproduced a few times, the inserted DNA is chemically indistinguishable from the target’s own DNA. That is because, for all intents and purposes, it is the target’s own DNA.

Regulation of transcription

Sometimes, one doesn’t want to add something new to an organism, but just to get rid of something that’s already there or to make it more/less prominent. Usually, this is done by regulating how often and at what time transcription of a given gene occurs. You can do this by replacing a gene’s promoter, by altering how its enhancer interacts with it, or by allowing an inhibitor to either work or not work on it. Only rarely do these alterations involve the addition of transgenic DNA, since the cell wouldn’t recognize that anyway; they usually involve the alteration, substitution, addition or deletion of existing elements, the effect of which is to simply change how the pieces that make up an organism interact with each other.

Regulatory elements are usually fairly specific to the organism and its close genetic relatives, in the same genus or taxonomic family. So, in altering something that occurs in wheat, you almost never need to do anything that could ever affect the transcription of any other genes of any other organisms, anywhere.

Regulation of translation

Another step in the process where engineering can be targeted is translation. In controlling how and when a gene becomes a protein, a gene’s effect can be very precisely controlled, so that in certain places and times its effect is increased while in others it is diminished or negated entirely. This is also often called by another name – RNAi, or RNA interference – because one kind of translational regulation involves inserting a nonsense gene into an organism, which will affect the way a target gene is translated. This works because RNA, if paired with some other strand whose sequence is its mirror image, will bond to it and end up being double stranded much like DNA. Unlike DNA, though, when RNA becomes double stranded it essentially becomes useless. Cells have the ability to identify dsRNA, and thereafter to degrade it without translating it, seeing to it that the original gene never becomes a protein in the first place.

When performing RNAi, nonsense genes are inserted into a target genome. These nonsense genes do not and cannot become genes themselves, as they lack the sequences to kick start the machinery of translation, and so the only thing they are capable of doing is bonding to their complementary not-nonsense target gene, and inhibit its function.

Cis-genic engineering

Finally, more recently a form of genetic engineering that uses genes from other members of the same species has come into prominence. This essentially speeds up the natural processes of cross-breeding, and targets it to a specific purpose, by using the organisms own genes to give it some property or trait that it didn’t have before. This is easier and more directed than selective breeding, because through other molecular biological procedure we can assess whether the transformation was a success and to what extent, without needing to go through several generations of growth to check for the inclusion of dangerous, deleterious recessive genes.

Popular varieties of genetically engineered organisms

Genetically engineered products have a profound place in our daily lives. When we think of “GMOs” (or, as discussed earlier, the more appropriately named “GEOs”) we think of food, but it doesn’t nearly stop there, and it’s not limited to just the varieties covered in popular media or on the internet. This section is devoted to dispelling that misunderstanding, by rounding up examples of the most popular, widespread kinds of GEOs and a few types that, though uncommon are indicative of some important process or principle.

Genetically Engineered Crops

There are myriad varieties of genetically engineered foods, but most are just variations on a few basic themes. A few are unique, in either what they are intended to do or how they do it. The themes are the variations are:

  • Insect-resistant crops (“Bt” or “killer” crops): One of the two most common types of genetically engineered crops, engineering for insect resistance is one of the most effective and widely utilized forms of engineering on the market today. It relies on a natural toxin produced by a bacterium, Bacillus thuringensis, which kills many insects when it is consumed by them and thereby protects the plant into which it has been engineered from persistent colonization by that insect. This same insecticide, in another life, plays a very different role. When simply sprayed over crops and not engineered to be produced within their cells, it is one of the most common organic pesticides in use today. It is engineered into plants by using transgenic methods, as discussed above.
  • Herbicide-resistant crops (RoundupReady, etc): The other most common kind of crop is one that is resistant to herbicides. That on the surface seems rather counter-intuitive, but the reason is quite simple. When one grows grains of pretty much any kind, the most common weed that grows alongside them and thereby impedes their growth is the wild variety of that same grain, which is usually a form of parasitic grass. This is true of corn, wheat, rice, oats, and other crop species. Herbicides like Roundup (a glyphosate-based herbicide) normally kill both the crop and the weed, so they have to be sprayed carefully around the edges of a field or replaced with other herbicides that do the job but are usually much more toxic and much less effective. By making the crop resistant to glyphosate, a farmer can use that herbicide on his crops without fear of damaging them. The gene for glyphosate resistance comes from a soil bacterium called Agrobacterium sp. strain CD4, and is introduced into crop genomes using normal transgenic methods.
  • Disease-, Drought-, Cold- and Heat-Resistant crops: Another few common kinds of crops are those that have been made resistant to some naturally-occurring condition or disease. These are usually made resistant by first identifying the exact protein that the disease or condition affects first, and then finding an alternate form that is resistant. A good example of this is that of a drought-resistant rice, which was developed by splicing a gene called Deep Rooting into a commonly cultivated variety of rice used throughout Asia. Other examples include a blight resistant potato variety, a fungus resistant wheat variety, and variety of corn that is resistant to persistently dry conditions. The gene, which comes from a different, wild variety causes the rice plants roots to grow deep and straight down, as opposed to shallowly outward as they normally do. These are developed by numerous different techniques, some of them cisgenic and others transgenic in nature.
  • Yield Size and Crop Nutrition Improvements: Finally, there are those varieties of crops that are altered in order to simply improve either the quality or the quantity of the crops of edible fruits or grains that are harvested from the crop. These come in a number of specific forms, from Flavr Savr tomatoes that lose flavor more slowly by using RNAi techniques, to rice varieties that improve yield by growing shorter stalks and larger heads of grain, to the much talked about Golden Rice that uses genes from the daffodil and from a soil bacterium in order to produce beta-carotene and thereby helps prevent malnutrition in the third world.
  • Outcrossing and Breeding Control Mechanisms: This final class of biotech merits a mention, but this also comes with a special note. In the 1990s, this kind of crop – called a “terminator” crop – was under development, but due to public outcry it was never finalized or released for public consumption. These varieties are meant to deal with one hypothetical problem identified by environmental advocates – that is, they were worried that transgenes present in engineered crops would be bred into the wild type neighbors of those crops and render them inadvertently transgenic. Even though this concern has been shown to be only hypothetical, multiple companies including Monsanto and Dow developed crop varieties that were unable to produce viable pollen or seeds except in the lab, thereby rendering it incapable of outcrossing. This would have legitimately burdened third world farmers who would not be able to replant any of their cultivated seed from year to year, however, and so development on this variety was stopped before licensing was even sought for its public cultivation.

Genetically Engineered Medicines

One other common reason we employ genetic engineering is to produce medicines. Previously, when a protein or some other gene product is found to be a useful medicine, large varieties of the source organism would then have to be cultivated in order to extract the medicine from them. Eventually, we learned that we could often use bacteria or yeast to do that grunt work more cheaply, more ethically, and more effectively, by programming the aforementioned micro-organisms to produce what we wanted and then cultivating them instead. Some common medicines that we produce in this manner include insulin (previously extracted from horses), follistim (a fertility drug), albumin (used as a safe filler in a number of medications), antibodies, and vaccines. Instead of breeding whole, infectious viruses and then attenuating them with heat or chemicals, which is a faulty process that sometimes results in inadvertent infection, we can use genetic engineering to create a vaccine that contains only a small, non-infectious part of the virus and none of its infectious DNA/RNA, so that it provokes an immune response and thereby confers immunity but has absolutely no risk of infection.

Genetically Engineered Animals

Another growing area of research has been in the creation of genetically engineered varieties of animal. Leaving aside the countless varieties of engineered organism that are created for research purposes (such as fruit flies that are modified in a particular way, or mice that are modified in a particular way), there are a few varieties that have been created as an end product, meant for final use in their modified state. None of those varieties have been subjected to the process for being approved for human consumption, so there is no such thing as genetically engineered meat or milk or fish in our food supply right now, but they have been developed for other purposes. A variety of mosquito has been developed that can only successfully breed under peculiar laboratory conditions, and will soon be used to fight Malaria (and other insect-borne diseases). A variety of fish has been developed that uses the presence or absence of a visible glow to advertise whether water is clean, so that it is easier for environmental scientists to rapidly detect toxins in the water supply. More varieties of genetically engineered animal are under development, or are being researched with a mind for further development in coming years. Mostly, this is for the same reasons we develop any other GEO – because someone or everyone finds it useful. A tsetse fly that kills other tsetse flies and stops the spread of Sleeping Sickness, a mosquito that fights Malaria, a fish that fights water pollution, all are attractive prospects because they all benefit the public good, in addition to any varieties which might be developed for profit-making or other commercial purposes.

All of this leads us to part 3, The Controversy, which will be released soon. But in order to truly understand that, you needed to have all of this background material. I hope you’ve understood everything up to this point, but if at any point I’ve been unclear please ask for additional information or clarification and I;ll do my best to help. Thanks!

Genetic Engineering in our Daily Lives (pt. 1)

In the past two years or so, genetic engineering has entered the spotlight of the common cultural discourse. As a result, there has been an explosion of bad information, intentional misinformation, ignorance, and by consequence, fear. As a geneticist by training, this bothers me a great deal. I’ve posted about it before, and I’m sure I’ll do so again, but for my first “Science” post I’d like to do it now.

“GE” versus “GMO”

Before I get to the meat of the matter, we need to talk terminology for a bit. You’ll find that throughout this post and elsewhere, I tend to use “GE” or “Genetically Engineered” rather than “GMO” or “Genetically Modified Organism.” That’s not an attempt to distract or obfuscate; much the opposite, in fact. I use the former term rather than the latter because it is more accurate.

Ever since the beginning of agriculture in Mesopotamia about 10,000 years ago, we’ve been modifying DNA. Ever since we intentionally domesticated the dog, we’ve been modifying DNA. To make those changes, to make fruits get bigger or bodies get smaller, we bred organisms with traits we wanted with other organisms that also had traits we wanted – selective breeding. Another term for this is evolution by artificial selection. In so doing, for instance, we increased the amount of DNA in the strawberry up to 32-fold, so that commercial domesticated strawberries have up to 32 times as much DNA per cell as the wild strawberry, through the duplication of whole chromosomes. In dogs, the changes are more subtle but no less substantial. Genes, and more often regulatory elements – which are stretches of DNA that do nothing other than tell cellular machinery when, where, and how much of a certain protein to make – were changed out, the end result is a creature tailor made for hunting, herding, guarding, or whatever else we desired. The short version of the story is that we have been modifying DNA for a very, very long time.

Engineering is a more intentional, more directed process. When we engineer items, we build things like circuits or rockets or skyscrapers, from nuts and bolts to blueprints and floor plans. We’ve understood the basic structure and importance of DNA for generation or three. Dr. James Watson and Dr. Francis Crick published their landmark paper on the structure of DNA in 1953, and in 1972 we made the first intentional change to living DNA by inserting a gene from one bacterium into another bacterium, proving that it could be done and was stable even after several generations. The process has gotten a whole lot easier and a whole lot more robust since then, but the fundamentals remain largely the same.

Given that it is the latter process that most people are referring to when they use the term “GMO” and not the former process, I choose to use “GE” or “Genetically Engineered” when talking about that, and you should too. If you want to be taken seriously when speaking on scientific issues, start by sounding like you know what you’re talking about.

The Story of Genetic Engineering

It is useful to start our tale with a historical perspective, an exposition on just what genetic engineering is, how it works, and how it came about. Like I mentioned earlier, in 1953 Watson & Crick published their paper on the structure of DNA. That ended one era of scientific inquiry, and started another. Up to that point, the main thrust of research in that field had mostly been directed to determine what the “heritable material” was – or, what was it that was passed on from parent to child that made the latter look and act mostly like a blend of the former (separately and much earlier, scientists [namely Gregor Mendel] had determined how inheritance worked in general, and gave us a basic vocabulary for genetics, but I’m going to ignore that for the moment). They determined that the heritable material was DNA, and then started to work at discovering just what DNA was and how it worked. Through a series of experiments they uncovered the following facts:

  • DNA was a polymer, a molecule made up of building blocks. Those building blocks were Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, and Thymine. These four molecules were acidic, and were found mostly in the nucleus of cells, so they were called nucleic acids.
  • In any given DNA molecule, there was always exactly as much Adenine as Thymine, and exactly as much Cytosine as Guanine. That ratio was not true for any other pair of nucleic acids.
  • DNA did not come in single molecules, but in pairs. This pairing was joined together by a kind of bond called a hydrogen bond that could break and reform rather easily.
  • DNA was a molecule that, when bonded in stable pairs as happens in regular cells, looked kind of like a twisted ladder. This is called a double helix.

These were all really cool factoids on their own, but until Watson & Crick (and Franklin and Wilkins) synthesized them into a coherent model by adding a few bits of their own data and spending many hours essentially playing with Legos, they were all mildly cool, but not really useful for anything. Then, they published their paper in 1953, and the whole world of molecular biology was set alight with new purpose, and a new era of research began.

After Watson & Crick, the main thrust of genetic and molecular biological research shifted from what the heritable principle was and how it worked, to how we could use it to best benefit society. One of the most important things to happen after that point was a very fortuitous cup of coffee between two scientists – Dr. Herbert Boyer and Dr. Stanley Cohen. They discovered that though they were working on two different topics, their work was very complementary to one another. One was working on plasmids, which were special molecules – chromosomes – that sometimes happened in bacteria, researching how they worked and how they might be made. The other was working on a peculiar defense mechanism in bacteria, called a restriction enzyme. These were proteins that were programmed to cut any DNA that had a particular sequence in it. The sequence was usually uncommon enough that it never occurred in the bacterium’s own DNA, but it did occur in the DNA of other bacteria or viruses that the bacterium was protecting itself against. So, if the bacterium ever encountered any of those bacteria/viruses, the restriction enzymes would cut up the DNA of the target and kill them. But, importantly, the ends of the pieces of DNA that the enzymes cut were “sticky” to other ends of other pieces of DNA cut by the same enzyme. Upon realizing this, a light bulb went off somewhere. If two pieces of DNA – one being the place you wanted to stick a piece of DNA, the other being the piece of DNA you wanted to stick there – were both cut with the same restriction enzyme, you could use one piece of cut DNA like a bandage on the other, and would at once repair the damage and insert the DNA you wanted into the target you wanted.

At first, this was only tried with the DNA of bacteria. Eventually, scientists found that you could mix the DNA of literally anything with anything, at least most of the time, and get the gene you wanted inserted into the DNA you wanted if you did it just right. Out of this discovery was born a whole industry, and hundreds of scientists dedicated their lives to studying this further. I’m one of them, though I must admit my own contributions have been small and unimportant by comparison.

Around this time, people figured out that there was a great deal of money to be made in this. What began as a line of research meant for the public good, to do things like cure cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia, Alzheimer’s and cancer, world hunger and environmental ruin, was turned into an engine of profit for companies like Dow and Monsanto.

In the next page of this history, I’ll cover current applications of genetic engineering along with descriptions and a few details on each. That will lead us into part 3, where I will talk about the current controversy over GE crops.

Continued in part 2…

A Beginning

This is the start of something – hopefully, something that will last a while. It is (rather obviously) my blog. It is not about one thing, but many things, because my life is not about one thing nor am I interested in just one thing. Everything from politics to geekery to science to journalism to my own personal journey with some rough topics is going to be covered. Before I get to that, though, I want to tell you some things about me and about this blog that will help you to understand what’s going to come later.

About this blog

As implied by the title and stated by the tagline and as already stated by me a couple of times now, this blog is not just about one thing. The things it is about are broken into a few categories, which are listed below. Posts will probably come every few days, sometimes more sometimes less. I will endeavor to split the posts into a couple of types. Opinions and comments are just that – my opinions or comments on issues, unsourced and unvarnished, though I will endeavor to make them valuable, thoughtful, and meaningful to you as best I can. You are free to disagree, with either my views or with whether I’ve achieved my goals in presenting them to you. I welcome disagreement, and I’m never absolutely sure of anything, so as long as you’re not just trolling I welcome opinions and comments on my opinions and comments. That’s what the internet is about, after all. Articles are researched, sourced analyses of some topic of particular importance, written after the fashion of the articles I’m used to reading (as I cover below, my education is as a molecular biologist). I’m going to go out of my way to use plenty of sources and to use them in such a manner that you can check them out for yourself whenever possible, and so say so when it is not. In exchange for that, I ask that you read my writing with an open mind, check my sources, and if you still disagree then to speak to the evidence or address its shortcomings in your disagreement. Finally, analyses are detailed looks at one or a small number of items, such as a news story or article on some other site or blog or something. They obviously have at least one primary source, the one upon which I’m making my analysis and which will always be linked if possible, but may have more if I feel it necessary to make my point. So, that said, the main topics of this blog are as follows:

  • Politics: I am interested in a number of political topics, and those topics will probably make up a substantial number of posts on this blog. They aren’t restricted to any one area, since I have about equal interest in economic issues as pro-democracy reform as foreign affairs as  other areas. I’ll talk about them all as the fancy suits me, and try to keep the screaming to a minimum. I really don’t like screaming, and I’m tired of it dominating American political discourse. I’d like to do what I can to change that, however small or practically nonexistent the change ends up being.
  • Geekery: I’ve been a geek for a long time. I started playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons when I was 8 years old, and have been ever since. I started video games on the likes of Kings Quest, Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog, Mortal Kombat, Doom, and others. Right now, I only really play a few – World of Warcraft and Guild Wars II being chief among them. I still play Dungeons & Dragons, now in its 4th edition, and run it as well. I’m developing a role-playing game of my own, and am hopefully soon to start playing in Dystopia Rising. So as far as nerd culture goes, I’m pretty deeply embedded. I hope you’ll enjoy sharing my view from time to time.
  • Science: As I said a minute ago, my primary training is in molecular biology. I went into that field because I’m interested in science, because the living world fascinates me, and because I think that science will, already has, and continues to save the world. Because of that, from time to time I will share science that I find really neat, or will cover some topic that is widely misunderstood. This could be GMOs or particle physics or evolution or something else; whatever it is, I’m going to try to cover it in a tone meant for non-scientists, that explains, educates, and helps you appreciate just why I think that thing is just so darn cool. It also might be worth mentioning here that two or three jobs ago, I taught Biology and Physical Science for the Jefferson Parish Public School System.
  • Media: While I find science damn cool, I find science reporting to often be far less cool. It is uninformed, uninformative, and sometimes downright wrong. Other kinds of reporting are no better, often times. Occasionally I will find something worth sharing as-is, but it seems lately that more often than not a popular story needs a rider or some contextual or clarifying information alongside it in order to truly understand what’s going on. These posts will focus on doing just that, on analyzing and improving on and pointing out articles that are either just plan right or just plain wrong. I’ll try to keep it fairly limited, though, because you really could go on forever with analyzing the constant stream of words produced by the media.
  • Religion: In America, religion is part of public life. It touches our every day lives and affects things from public policy and law to foreign relations to Thanksgiving dinner. This widespread impact, and my own unique perspective on religion will frame the handful of posts I have on this topic. I don’t talk about it very much in comparison to the last few topics, but it will probably be mentioned and it certainly is, for the reasons noted above, worth mentioning from time to time.
  • Recovery: A little less than two years ago as of this writing, I was diagnosed with a kind of brain tumor called an acoustic neuroma (or alternately, a schwannoma). It had made me deaf in my right ear, and subsequently caused a host of other symptoms. Its removal caused some more side effects, including the temporary inability to walk, talk, eat, or move the right half of my face. Posts on this topic will be personal tales and comments on my recovery from this, dealing with the remnant symptoms and therapy and such.
  • Louisiana: I live in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Some posts will be about life and issues centered on the city or the state, local politics or religion or any of the other categories listed above. In that respect it is really a meta-category, encompassing all of the other categories within it.

About me

In order for you to understand where I’m coming from on any of the above, it would help you to know a bit about me. I’m going to keep this fairly short though, so that you’re not just inundated with information about me.

I’m Luke, a 30 year old lab analyst from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. My views on politics are downright progressive, much more so than you’d think from where I live. I am also a Buddhist, waffling between a couple of different varieties and mostly in solitary practice. My training is primarily in molecular biology and genetics, and I’ve previously worked both in academic research about genetic regulation and in industry doing work on environmental and industrial analytical chemistry. My posts all come from that bias, and you should consider that in reading them, but those basic elements are just a short-hand as my particular views and life experience are much more complicated and nuanced than that. For instance, while you might think I think the opposite from reading the above, I support capital punishment in some instances and think that the world is much larger and more complex than a purely mechanistic explanation can possibly convey. I am not unchanging, though, so these statements may mean nothing a year from now.

This blog is called the “Renaissance Millenial” for the simple reason that I am a millenial (sort of, kind of, depending on who you ask – I was born in 1983), and I cannot manage to devote myself to one thing. Instead, I’m more of a Renaissance man, focused on writing and role-playing as well as science, politics, religion, and other topics. I posed a question to my friends on what they liked about my writing, and they didn’t come to a consensus, so I decided to dedicate this blog to my diverse interests and to turn it into a platform for expressing those interests to you. With that in mind, I hope you’ll find it useful.