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Dynamic DNA: Anti-vaccination explained

While delivering a presentation on clinical pharmaceutical trials I came face to face with what is known to the scientific community as an ‘Anti-Vaxer’.

If you have not heard of this term before you may be forgiven for thinking that I’d had an encounter with some kind of malevolent demonic entity.

No an anti-vaxer is not an evil being from an alternative hellish dimension, it is a person who, despite overwhelming scientific evidence, jeopardizes public heath by refusing to have their child vaccinated for a whole load of reasons. Despite the overwhelming evidence supporting vaccination as an effective way to save lives and improve the health and well-being of the human population there is a significant amount of people who reject it.

The anti vaccination movement is not alone in their point-blank refusal to reject overwhelming evidence, there are lots of examples of groups of people who reject the scientific evidence over their unwavering belief in their cause. Maybe the best example of this is the Flat Earth society.

Yes that’s right, there are people who are still adamant that the earth is flat, despite an inordinate amount of scientific to confirm that it is an oblate spheroid. Including actual pictures of the earth taken from space by Apollo 17.

Looks pretty fucking round to me.

Here is a link to the Flat earth society podcast if you feel like adding a bit of bat shit crazy to your day.

And here is a link to buy a Flat earth society t-shirt if you feel like looking bat shit crazy.

Anyway, back to the anti vaxer. As my mind was puzzling with frustration as to how this individual can justify their position I started to think back to one of my first year lectures at university; and in doing this I may have stumbled upon a possible logical explanation for this seemingly stupid phenomenon.

Human beings come in all shapes and sizes, even the way our brains work varies from person to person. The reason for this is that because we reproduce sexually, we create genetic diversity. This diversity makes us less likely to become extinct as it creates a population with a whole range of strengths and weakness and we are therefore able to adapt to our environment.

The abiotic (non-living) environment is incredibly random, some days nothing happens and other days it throws a gigantic fucking 10 meter high tsunami wave at you. A population with a range of abilities is more likely to survive random changes in its environment; in short – Genetic diversity in both behavioural and physiological traits is a vital characteristic for populations of species to survive in this crazy world.

What does this have to do with anti-vaccination and flat earth society people?

I propose that these seemly illogical  beliefs are the manifestation of an evolutionary fail safe that prevents all human beings in a population agreeing with each other 100% despite overwhelming support from evidence for them to do so.  Just like genetic variation, a disparity in opinion, beliefs and therefore physical practice means a population is more likely to survive.

Vaccination is a safe procedure; however if it wasn’t and it turned out to be fatal (it isn’t but lets just say it was) not all of the human population would die because of the people who rejected the practice.

Maybe I am just trying to hard to find some sense  in the arguments of these movements but I think its possible that there might be some logic in acting illogically.

Sorry Spock.

I prefer the old school Spock.

 

 

Enter the Anthropocene : Just how F@#*£d are we?

The defining issue of our era is that human beings  are unable to stop their grossly detrimental  effect on our planet’s ecosystems.

Between climate change, ocean acidification, fracking, landfills and deforestation, the natural environment is being choke-slammed by the homosapien menace.

If the collective human race had to apply to live on a new planet, this is what our CV/resume might look like:

Personal information Bidedal ape with over-developed neocortex.
Skills Making tools , abstract thought , planking.
Personal statement YOLO.
Reference Mr Dodo – Not available for comment.

 

We probably wouldn’t get an interview.

This human dominated era we live in has been awarded its own Geological time period: The anthropocene. Scientists agree that this era began just after the industrial revolution in 1760 and for the first time in known history a single species is causing massive and catastrophic changes in our planet’s climate and ecosystems.

The short clip below, from Arlind Boshnjaku, gives an excellent (if a bit terrifying) visual summary of human caused environmental changes over the last 300 years.

Take a look at this graph of the global human population from the United States census bureau.

World Population Against Time
World population (in billions) against time

 

It’s hard to be optimistic about the future of the planet when the vandals responsible for destroying it are breeding exponentially. We may be about to trigger what’s known as a mass extinction event.

What makes this issue even more frustrating is that we are aware of what’s happening but collectively as race we seem unable to stop our adverse behaviour. Environmental initiatives continue to come up short against the might of the fossil fuel industry.

I hate to quote Russell Brand but we really are in need of an “environmental revolution“.

While it is easy to throw blame at corporate industry, we are all part of this problem. It seems humans are only programmed to care about events no further than 60-70 years in the future, we have lots of things thrown at us in life and people find it hard to care about what kind of world we will leave for our grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren.

Before you think I am trying to ruin your day with all this depressing shit, you may be reassured to learn that the planet has dealt with mass extinctions before.

There are 5 mass extinctions in the fossil record, they are periods of time where over 50% of species have gone extinct (in the case of the End-Ordovician mass extinction it was around 82-88%). These events where probably caused by a sharp change in environmental conditions such as volcanic activity or a gigantic  7 mile wide space rock slamming into the earth with 100 million megatons of force. That’s two million times more powerful than the largest nuke bomb ever developed.

It also may surprise you to learn that more than 99% of all species that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct; it is a completely normal process that happens for a variety of natural reasons.

Life on our planet has been through a hell of a lot and still managed to prosper in an incredibly diverse manner, spreading to all but the most inhospitable areas of the globe.

However my point isn’t that we can be complacent about this.

For all the mass extinction events that have happened in the past, this one could be the most catastrophic, and it really could be the end of the human species as well as so many others which are perhaps less deserving of obliteration.

As I said before I am with Brand on this, we are in need of an environmental revolution. It is just reassuring to know that biological life in its unfathomable diversity will almost certainly recover no matter how bad we fuck everything up.

At least until the sun goes supernova.

i

Venom: Turning Toxicology on its Head

The Deathstalker Scorpion (yes, that’s its actual name) is found roaming across North Africa and the Middle East. It may only be a modest 7 centimetres in length, but this animal more than deserves its ominous title.

If you are unfortunate enough to be stung by this marauding creature you can look forward to what is described by victims as “mind splitting pain” and possible death caused by pulmonary edema; whereby your lungs to fill with water until you ultimately drown in your own body fluid.

Sounds fun, right?

Before you start posting frantically on Reddit demanding the global extermination of these eight limbed bastards from hell you may be surprised to learn that the medical community is studying the Deathstalker Scorpion with the hope of finding cures and treatments for a range of diseases.

First off though, lets look at how venom works.

Venom has been refined over millions of years, evolving independently over and over again in different species. These deadly mix of proteins and peptides are almost impossibly diverse and lacks no creativity in how it will send you to meet your maker.

In each venomous bite or sting dozens of toxins can be released, each targeting a different part of the organisms vital processes. Some affect the nervous system – paralysing by blocking messages between nerves and muscle, some kill by clotting blood and stopping the heart and others by preventing clotting and triggering a killer bleed from the bite wound itself. Some even causes Necrosis (cell death) of your skins tissue, literally causing your skin to fall off.

Charming.

I guess you could say its  like being shot, poisoned, choked and burned at the same time!

However, this spectrum of venom’s killing methods translates into a diverse range of medical applications and is currently being used to look into treatments and cures for an ever growing list of list of diseases and conditions. A whole host of venomous animals are being studied in this emerging field, from cone snails to snakes.

Recently a materials scientist, Miqin Zhang and her research team, at the University of Washington, showed that a certain compound found within the venom of the Scorpion could help in the treatment of brain cancers like Glioma.

In the current treatment process of gene therapy, doctors inject small pieces of healthy DNA that are attached to nanoparticles. These move toward the tumour site to replace and repair the cancer-causing gene mutations.

The problem is that many of the substances currently used for delivery either don’t deliver the genes efficiently or have potentially harmful side effects. In tests on mice, researchers demonstrated that their venom-based nanoparticles can induce nearly twice the amount of gene expression in brain cancer cells as nanoparticles that do not contain the venom ingredient.

This is just one example of a whole new field of research which can turn one of the most terrifying weapons of nature on its head. Snake bites alone kill at least 50,000 people a year, however it is possible that venom can be used to save more human lives than it ends.

Another avenue of venom based research is using it as a tool to understand more about how cells work.

Due to the specific metabolic pathways in cells that venom is known to inhibit, venom can be used to learn more about how certain biological mechanisms function. For example the venom of the Peruvian green-velvet tarantula has recently been employed to modify ion channels within cells in studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Armed with this information researchers will be able to design drugs that specifically alter the metabolic processes of cells with the aim of derailing human and treating various diseases.

This case highlights the importance of understanding the mechanisms behind the evolution of species as hidden in this information is a gold mine of scientific innovations.