Saturday, 19 September 2015

GM debate : ignorance of reality is no defence.

And now we have a bunch of gene spliced pollen floating around the countryside fertilising next years seed corn.

To prevent stray pollen the Rothamsted scientists have surrounded the trial plots with 10 metres of barley and three metres of conventional wheat.
No cereals or grasses are grown within 20 metres of the border. Wheat pollen is heavy and travels at most 12 metres.

These precautions @fizzgog are totally inadequate to prevent contamination. They have been conceived within the wrong paradigm, they are designed to reduce the statistical likelihood of a single pollen grain passing to a food crop but where you are dealing with billions of pollen grains in a real world situation, a small statistical chance for one grain becomes a statistical inevitability for many many thousands.

It bears comparison with the reason that the Nazis did not develope the nuclear bomb, they believed the statistical likelihood of a single neutron collision required that it travel through many meters of plutonium, what they didn't consider was what the allies understood, which is that not all the neutrons need to collide to generate a self sustaining fission chain reaction. Only a smaller proportion need to collide, a statistical inevitability where billions are involved. Their huge error meant they believed a nuke had to be made of tonnes of material and so they did not persue the idea when in fact the critical mass for plutonium 239 is about 11 kg.

These field trial precautions fall foul of the same kind of mistaken interpretation of statistics. The contamination of the food crop with genespliced pollen was inevitable using these protocols, it has already happened.

Consider the case where there is a local eddy which can pick up much heavier objects than a breeze and transport them to altitude thus moving them far further than laboratory based experiments predict. This is due to the low pressure tube which forms at the middle of any vortex and sucks in medium like a vacuum cleaner. They dont have to big, even a dust devil would shift pollen a lot further than 12m and a strong turbulent persistant wind will tear the lab based statistics for pollen distribution to shreds as turbulence creates multiple chaotic vortices. Its absolutely unconscionable to expose the UK countryside to experimental windborn GM pollen.

Not even one grain of pollen should be allowed to escape. Genetic contamination does not require that a whole field be pollinated, it requires only that one seed planted for next years crop be fertilised by this years genespliced pollen.

flyingfox (aka boolybooly)
The article above is predicated on a straw man argument. Many GM critics are highly qualified and well informed biologists. The people doing GM work are not all of the same caliber and have been hired by profit motivated companies flush with finance to play with forces they do not seem to understand. 
The design of this experiment was negligent and unsafe and has ensured that modified genetic material will have escaped into the environment and will now become part of the wheat crop in the UK whether it was successful or not, whether it was safe to eat or not, we will soon be eating it.

Critical Party

I assume that the critic "scientists" you're referring to are people like Seralini, Carmen, and Seneff? People that have been thoroughly lambasted for poor science by regulatory agencies across the board. 
Also, your second paragraph is hilarious. Your knowledge of how genetics works is clearly completely nonexistent.

I am afraid you have that backwards, it is you who does not understand. I am not trying to slap you down or anything but FYI and because you brought it up I have studied evolution and genetics at a reputable academic institution :) please feel free to troll away if it makes you feel good.
If ignorance is no defence in law, it certainly will not protect us from reality. The experimental design ensured that wind borne pollen has escaped, it does not take a field full of GM wheat for next year's wheat crop to be contaminated, it takes only one pollen grain to fertilise one seed and for that seed to be planted among next year's crop for the genetic modification to become established in the food crop gene pool. The theory of evolution by natural selection depends on the possibility that mutations happen only once but can be inherited by an entire species due to the process of gene fixation. This is because where one individual organism reproduces it can create more than one offspring eg the many seeds (and pollen grains) of a wheat plant seed head. Where offspring inherit an advantage they will reproduce better than competitors without that advantage, but even where a genetic difference confers no advantage the frequency of GM chromosomes will still persist in the gene pool alongside competitor non GM chromosomes and can potentially increase due to a process termed "genetic drift". We know this already.
However the conception of this experiment has been criticised on the basis that aphids respond to changes in pheromone concentration, so are not deterred by an even and constant spread of the chemical across an entire field ie they become habituated to a constant concentration and only respond to a sudden increase signalling an alarm. Where contaminating seed grows in an environment where it is one plant among many without the modification it might potentially be granted an advantage not evident in the experiment precisely because it is present in small numbers within a host crop, creating localised maxima of pheromone concentration so that an aphid arriving at a GM plant will encounter a relative rise in alarm pheromone and be repelled to nearby plants without the pheromone, which means that there may be a selection pressure which will raise the frequency of the contaminating GM genotype to an equilibrium point within the gene pool where it no longer confers an advantage because too many neighbours have the same pheromone. Such a gene would never reach fixation in a monoculture crop but would never be extinguished either because where it became rarer it would become advantageous again and so would always be present.
The point is we don't know whether this can happen but the lab experiments suggest it is a possibility. But that is the point, ignorance is no defence in reality. These field experiments should never have gone ahead in the open without proper laboratory background research into the phenomena they are trying to exploit. In this case the failure shows the experimentation had not been done adequately.
But there are also other real world reasons for caution which are being completely ignored by open air experimentation. All GM product should be treated as biohazard until food trials have been conducted to ensure pleiotropic effects or the reawakening of epigenetically suppressed genes has not allowed any carefully bred out plant defences or other toxity to result. They should certainly not be allowed to contaminate food crops. I fear it will take a disaster on the scale of an industrial accident for biotech companies to take genetic safety seriously.
These companies are playing biological roulette with your daily bread. With this trial the damage has already been done and we will just have to cross our fingers and hope for the best. There is nothing else we can do except ensure that local wheat farms for a 5km radius do not allow their wheat to be used for seed next year.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Our priority must be to defend the Earth not create an elitist enclave of narcissistic boffins on Mars.

I know it looks like I am hitting on Professor Hawking for which I am sorry, as this is the second article in a row in this blog to reference one of his media statements. But he does say interesting and sometimes controversial things which do seem intended to stimulate thought.

Some time ago, spurred by reports of Stephen Hawking's express desire to see humanity live in space I felt it appropriate to respond with a consideration of the correct ordering of priorities for humanity at this time. An interesting interaction ensued. As I explained I didn't mean it unkindly but I think it makes more sense to look at this from a different perspective.

flyingfox 5 years ago• Our priority must be to defend the Earth not create an elitist enclave of narcissistic boffins on Mars. 
finsburyparker • It's thanks to your so called 'Narcissistic boffins on Mars' that you have access to this medium you are using to berate them! G. P. 
flyingfox •The boffins who invented the internet did not live on Mars (to the best of my knowledge) ! The reports we are seeing of Prof Hawking's thoughts have been dumbed down, my reply was intended to match the level of the discussion. Sorry if it seemed a little terse, I was having trouble making myself heard due to obstructive interactions between Disqus and Twitter which erased my first attempt so I tried to keep it short and pithy. 
 Am I calling all boffins narcissistic? No, only those Zardozesque straw boffins who would hypocritically condemn and might wish to escape from their fellow humans, rather than face their own flawed humanity and defend the only place we can call home from the danger of asteroid impacts.
 This would be the primary justification for journeying further into space than Earth orbit of sufficient urgency it can be countenanced when there are people dying in squalor all over the world, when we have not learned to husband our resources or to cherish rather than defile our environment or balance our population at sustainable levels, let alone switch to renewables, so that we may continue to live in sustainable comfort, with a clear conscience, in the one place we can call home. 
 The more we understand about the universe and our own evolution, the more we recognise that this planet is priceless, irreplaceable and indispensable to the future of humanity. If we have learned anything surely it is that there really is no place like home. 
 Asteroid impact is the one thing we cannot afford to let happen while we sort these other things out and this justifies continued investment in astronomy and space exploration, but these other things must be sorted not run away from or they will follow us wherever we go and our self inflicted torment will never end.

To comment further : IMHO The escapist tendency within the culture of science finds a creative outlet in science fiction in which space exploration is a trope for leaving the woes of the human condition behind. Much of this woe springs from the battle for civility within our own societies, the battle between brain and brawn within the body politic of our governments and academic institutions is a recapitulation of the battle between individuals who specialise in developing either. I am talking about geeks versus jocks. The truth is we need them both, not just as a society but as individuals, we need both. Ideally jocks need to get smart and geeks need to stay fit and healthy, or to look at it another way we all need to strike a balance between the inner geek and jock.

As I see it, much as space colonisation may have been an inspiration for the Star Trek generation, myself included, there is no practical way to escape this Earth of ours on a permanent basis within the next century because of the vast infrastructure which would be needed to support a breeding population anywhere else.

We take for granted all the things which Earth does for us and its time we didn't. It is time we recognised that the Earth is priceless and I cannot agree that we should ever treat it like a disposable item, in any case its not that simple.

Our survival even in the case of an extinction event asteroid impact would depend not on running away to space, but in the worst case it would depend on sustainable subterranean civilisation which would be far easier for us to do as we simply do not have the muscle to launch 1000 people, plus maternity hospital, plus resource gathering infrastructure and refining and manufacturing plants into orbit. Even if we had the ability to construct gravitational environments on a sufficient scale that they would be sustainable, which as yet we don't, the cost of putting them in orbit let alone on Mars would be, well, astronomical.

We would get far more for our money by burying everything we need below the protective skin of the Earth's crust and get gravity for free. It just makes more economic sense, not that I don't like the idea of getting away from it all, it just wouldn't work, not yet awhile.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

On Aggression

Stephen Hawking recently commented that ...
“The human failing I would most like to correct is aggression”
This is something which piqued my curiosity as an undergrad', so I felt it was worth contributing a few thoughts to the discussion in the media which Professor Hawking's comment made possible. Below is a reply to the article linked above, which summarises some key reasons for optimism about the human condition which result from the contemplation of biological knowledge, which I hope others will find interesting. 

I also plugged Konrad Lorenz's book "On Aggression" on which some of these ideas are based.

If one wishes to correct aggression one needs to understand the biological causes for it, its behavioural context and behavioural counterbalances like peacemaking, friendship and love which in the natural state inhibit aggression in appropriate circumstances.

Aggression is a part of us all. Even academics are aggressive in their own way and it would be hypocrisy to say otherwise and we all know that kind of hypocrisy is no stranger to religious fanatics either.

At the root of all our behaviours is natural selection which exists because self reproducing DNA reproduces more successfully the better it is at reproducing, obviously. OK we are competing for limited resources and winning can be a matter of life and death and that is the reality. For social animals like humans winning has a lot to do with making friends precisely because life isn't fair and contests of power between groups of equals become a numbers game. Consequently we have all that we need to solve the problems of aggression and live as friends should circumstances permit. In today's world those circumstances are of our own making.

In an aggressive world one needs to be aware of reality to survive but we can improve on the past. The numbers game is real but for example, given the right circumstances, democracy can win, because it pleases most of the people some of the time. Its not perfect but its usually better for everyone than war and revolution.

This is why I think it would help if more people understood the biological basis for our own psyches because this is as close as we have come to understanding our own reality and consequently offers us some chance of finding ways to remedy recurring patterns of violence. Such as the traps of tribal antagonism, since this is like a knee jerk reflex response for the human mind grappling with its group identity when it has no other frame of reference by which to assess its own emotions or clear understanding about the disgrace which such attitudes inflict on us today.

Nevertheless, even within a scientific context, the greatest obstacle between us and a peaceful cooperative life is ourselves, since understanding others is predicated upon such. One could do worse than starting with "On Aggression", a book by Konrad Lorenz, a noted ethologist, which is where my journey towards understanding my own and others' aggression began.