Archive | April, 2016

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Consolation, Trust and Empathy in Animals

Posted on 23 April 2016 by Jerry

Recent research points to shared capabilities among all mammals for consolation, trust, and empathy. It appears from the various studies that animals from prairie voles, highly monogamous zebra finches that mimic the stress state of their partner, and chimps all make friends, trust, and empathize with others.

A research study reviewed in the Science magazine, January 22, 2016 issue showed that prairie voles (rodents) exhibit a consoling response when other voles (cage-mates) in their environment are showing stress. An abstract of the study said “Consolation behavior toward distressed others is common in humans and great apes, yet our ability to explore the biological mechanisms underlying this behavior is limited by its apparent absence in laboratory animals.” This study was conducted using laboratory animals.

The study goes on to observe that the prairie vole, “greatly increases partner-directed grooming toward familiar conspecifics (but not strangers) that have experienced an unobserved stressor, provide social buffering. Prairie voles also match the fear response, anxiety-related behaviors, and corticosterone increase of the stressed cage-mate, suggesting an empathy mechanism.”

Frans De Waal, PhD was a co-author of this study that was conducted at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He said, “Scientists have been reluctant to attribute empathy to animals, often assuming selfish motives. These explanations have never worked well for consolation behavior, however, which is why this study is so important.” Consolation behavior in the voles is when one animal experiences a calming contact with a distressed colleague.

Chimpanzees base their friendships on trust of a familiar animal. The Max Planck Institute conducted this study at the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Kenya for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. It found that opposed to common wisdom, the Chimpanzee environment is not filled with aggression, conflict, competition and dominance.

Chimpanzees are given a choice of using a friendship or “trust rope” or a “no-trust rope” to access food. An article appearing in the January 15, 2016 Christian Science Monitor described the research by stating “The no-trust rope yields immediate access to food that the chimp doesn’t particularly like. But if the chimp pulls the trust rope, a box of high quality food – chimpanzee favorites like apple and bananas – moves to its partner. The partner eats half, but is then faced with a decision.

The article continues by stating “A ‘trustworthy’ chimp will send the other half of the food back to its partner, while an ‘untrustworthy’ chimp will keep the food for itself.” Chimps “were significantly more likely to share with friends. So friendship, like many supposedly human concepts, may be deeply rooted in evolutionary history. Individuals with friends live longer, have more children and [have] lower stress-levels.”

Yet another research effort looked at Zebra finches who mate for life and consequently have a very close partnership with with their mate. Research shows they enjoy a great sympathy between each other. For example, the research as reported in the December 11, 2015 issue of Science magazine showed that a female, only exposed to stress in the birdcall of her mate, would shift her physiological state to match her partner’s level of stress.

At the same time research into the human brain shows consistency in the physical reaction to a highly altruistic act. Research shows that empathy-based altruism is characterized by a connection from the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) to the anterior insula (AI) that also invokes connectivity to the ventral striatum. This format in the brain always represents altruistic behavior.

The innate quality of caring for one another appears to cross all higher organisms from mammals to rodents to birds. Empathy and sympathy appear to be universal and something ingrained or genetic within everything. We need to realize this is an aspect of human beings that we need to accentuate. We should use these higher impulses as the standard to endorse a human being as having value. These are the impulses we should look for and reward in our leaders and ourselves.

Use the following links to gain additional information or access the original research that was used to write this article.

http://science.sciencemag.org/content/351/6271/375

http://esciencenews.com/articles/2016/01/21/discovery.consoling.behavior.prairie.voles.may.benefit.autism.research

http://science.sciencemag.org/content/350/6266/1371

https://www.mpg.de/9829733/chimpanzees-friendship-trust

http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2016/0115/Chimps-form-friendships-based-on-trust-The-banana-sharing-test

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/01/humans-chimpanzees-trust-their-friends

http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-chimpanzees-trust-friends-20160114-story.html

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/inkfish/2016/01/05/female-finches-get-stressed-just-hearing-voice-stressed-mate/#.VxKaehHSalU

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3388787/Birds-suffer-marital-strife-Female-zebra-finches-worked-hear-calls-stressed-mate.html

 

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Synthetic Biology Creates Smallest Bacteria

Posted on 12 April 2016 by Jerry

Craig Venter, a longtime leader in synthetic biology if not a founder, has continued to pursue creation of a life form with the smallest number of genes that can act as a living envelop for a created synthetic organism. Venter’s team has now announced a bacterial cell that Venter calls the “most simple of all organisms.”   It only has 473 genes.

An article published on March 24, 2016 by Science magazine describes the new organism as a “Tour de force” in a quote of George Church, a synthetic biologist at Harvard University. Also known as Syn 3.0, the living bacterium has been cut down to the bare essential genes to sustain life. It has the least known or smallest genome of a living organism to date.

The problem with this new development is that it can be described as creating more questions than it answers. In trying to eliminate genes that did not keep this most basic bacterium alive, the synthetic biologist team found 149 of the 473 genes whose purpose was unknown. These genes remained a mystery because no one on the team could identify what functions these particular genes had.

The March 25, 2016 issue of Science magazine has an article entitled Design and synthesis of a minimal bacterial genome, which was written by Venter’s own team. This article said in conclusion, “The minimal cell concept appears simple at first glance but becomes more complex upon close inspection. In addition to essential and nonessential genes, there are many quasi-essential genes, which are not absolutely critical for viability but are nevertheless required for robust growth….Unexpectedly, it also contains 149 genes with unknown biological functions, suggesting the presence of undiscovered functions that are essential for life.”

This represents a continuation of a trend that was last highlighted in an article in this blog entitled, “Troubling Progress for Synthetic Biology” see www.iamaguardian.com/category/protect/synthetic-biology/page/2/ . This May 2012 article shows that the same teams are making progress on their respective objectives. It also shows that this research team is taking the easiest path to a conclusion and the simplicity of their approach to research, simplicity that allows for 149 unknown genes. These bacteria represent the next chapter of the J. Craig Venter team. These bacteria grow and thrive in a laboratory environment.

We continue to call for regulation of Venter’s team’s experimental efforts. It is clear they are taking a very ‘ham-handed’ approach to finding the secret of life. What else will they fail to know about the microbes they create? What will they care? What will stop them from taking a shortcut to wealth when they find a path to an IPO or a new product rather than take the appropriate steps to be safety conscious? This again highlights that this area has no government regulator or regulatory regime to look over their shoulder and insure their efforts are in the public interest.

The announcements themselves seem to respond to funders thirst for progress, which must be threatening to not give them any more money. These numbers do not assuage the concerns of the public.

Would you announce proudly the fact that you have whittled down bacterial genes to 473 when you continue to not know what 149 or over 30% of these genes do? Why would you make sweeping public announcements about this accomplishment? We need regulation and oversight of this area now. We must slow these teams and their zeal to reach the next plateau in living out their founder’s dreams of great wealth and renown.

Use the following links to access more information or read the source documents used to prepare this article.

http://news.yahoo.com/stripped-down-synthetic-organism-sheds-light-nature-life-204848392–finance.html

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/03/synthetic-microbe-lives-less-500-genes

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2003/11/designer-genomes-pronto

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-35895138

http://sciencemag.org/content/351/6280/aad6253

http://sciencemag.org/content/351/6280/1380

http://science.sciencemag.org/content/351/6280/aad6253.full

 

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GM Mosquitoes May Piggyback the Zika Virus

Posted on 09 April 2016 by Jerry

Genetic modification of a male mosquito whose offspring die before they mature and mate can be used to kill a certain kind of mosquito (Aedes aegypti) that carries dengue fever, chikungunya, yellow fever and now Zika virus.  Oxitec, a company out of the United Kingdom, produces this mosquito, with an engineered “self destruct” gene.

This company provides only one of three ways to drastically reduce the number of the offending mosquitoes.  The other two ways are using male mosquitoes that have been sterilized by low doses of radiation and/or a mosquito that is infected with the Wolbachia bacteria.  These bacteria do not infect humans but prevents eggs of infected females from hatching.  All of these approaches entail releasing large numbers of male mosquitoes into the environment.

The Oxitec genetically modified mosquito has been tested in Brazil, the Cayman Islands and a trial has been proposed in Florida.  Now the World Health Organization is very interested in the Oxitec mosquito as a viable way of stopping the spread of the Zika virus.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has tentatively agreed that the Oxitec genetically modified mosquito would not have a significant impact on the environment as a result of a trial in Florida.  The FDA report states, “The FDA found that the probability that the release of OX513A male mosquitoes would result in toxic or allergenic effects in humans or other animals is negligible.”  The FDA has to wait for public comment before giving final approval of the trial.  The process will probably take a few months.

Genetically modified insects have been introduced into the environment to protect or enhance crops for a number of years.  This however, will be the first GM insect introduced into the environment to have a direct effect on human beings. 

The problem is that use of this genetically modified mosquito has opened up quite a bit of controversy.  An opponent of the genetically modified mosquito, Jaydee Hanson a senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, has been quoted in a Bloomberg news article published on 1/29/2016.  He said “Mosquitoes are food for lots of animals; We would still want to see studies of when birds and bats and amphibians eat these genetically modified animals.  They’re introducing into the ecosystem some genetic constructs that have never been there before.”

The same article quotes the Oxitec CEO Hadyn Parry as arguing the opposite position.  He said, “You always get some people who say I don’t like genetic engineering because it’s a bad thing and we’re messing with nature.”  Referring to criticism that his mosquito might die out and another will come to the fore, he has also been quoted as saying, “So in the very worst case, where you find that you eliminated Aedes aegypti in an area and the Aedes albopictus went up, then you would actually be replacing a very dangerous vector with a far less effective one.”

You know that there are two other options that could be used to stop this type of mosquito that do not involve genetic modifications.  There are male mosquitoes of the same species that are exposed to low-grade radiation that sterilizes them and there are males that pass on the Wolbachia bacteria that make it so female eggs do not hatch.  Both of these two methods use males to mate with females to cause an end to successful fertilization and replication.

The question becomes why are we moving to choose the method that requires genetic modification.  The only answer that is probable is that we want to see a genetically altered alternative in the market.  This is a continuation of the government push for genetic engineering.   There have been numerous articles on this blog going back to the June 13, 2012 posting of Genetic Engineering Influence Peddling and Profit (see www.iamaguardian.com/category/protect/genetic-engineering/page/4/ ) that show the government’s bias to push for genetic modification products.

This support is hidden from the average citizen’s view and is the reason we are seeking a genetically engineered alternative.  There are just too many economic interests to be satisfied.  These, as an example, range from educators to scientists to entrepreneurs to established major competitors like Monsanto and to politicians.  The U.S. voter should rise up and call for a hiatus on approval of genetically modified products until there is proof that these products do not represent a threat to our health.

The FDA approved the first genetically modified animal intended to be human food in the AguAdvantage Salmon for sale and consumption in the U.S. sometime after November of last year.  Fortunately members of Congress disagreed.  On page 106 of the 2016 federal spending bill congress people added a requirement for the FDA to not allow the selling of this product in the U.S. until the agency puts in place labeling guidelines and “a program to disclose to consumers” whether a fish has been genetically modified.

We have a very short time to influence this genetic engineering issue.  We should insist that our candidates for president address this issue for us so we know where they stand on genetically engineered foods.  In all cases we should ask for regulation and oversight by a newly established governmental agency that dramatically slows the headlong rush to get these products into the market. 

Use the following links to access more information or read the source documents used to prepare this article.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/02/04/what-it-would-really-take-for-gmo-mosquitoes-to-solve-the-zika-crisis/

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jun/10/gm-mosquitos-malaria-genetic-modification

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-35585656

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-01-29/genetically-modified-mosquito-may-become-weapon-against-zika

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/01/Genetically-Modified-Mosquitos-May-Be-Released-in-Florida-Keys/384859/

http://e360.yale.edu/feature/genetically_modified_mosquito_sparks_a_controversy-in-florida/2883/

http://www.dw.com/en/fda-gives-nod-to-genetically-modified-mosquitoes/a-19112519

http://time.com/4258317/fda-genetically-engineered-mosquito/

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