ingrid: photo of me (Default)
2010-05-22 11:12 am

Sciencey linkspam

Of course everyone is talking about Craig Venter's synthetic life, but I'm rather blasé about it because I'm sure I heard about completion of the synthesis of the genome some months ago, and they already had the technology to insert genomes into hosts. And the genome is synthetic in the sense that it was synthesised base by painful base by commercial equipment, but the sequence is based on another existing species.

It might be important to some people that the DNA was sequenced on a machine rather than duplicated from an existing organism's DNA, but biologically it (of course) makes not a scrap of difference and so it's not a big deal from that point of view. I guess it can be compared to the first synthesis of urea; but I thought that had already established that life consists of the same chemicals non-life is made of. Those of us who've worked in molecular biology labs know that no-one keeps track of whether particular DNA is of biological origin, duplicated in the lab using polymerases, or comes off a synthesising machine, except in terms of budgeting. Synthesis is expensive.

I do find it amusing that several genes are non-functional because of errors during construction of the genome. The high quality of DNA synthesis in vivo is enforced by natural selection - if there are too many errors, the organism won't survive in the wild. And yet some people persist in weird terminological arguments that evolution can't work because selection requires someone to do the selecting.

I thought the walking fish are much more interesting and make for better pictures:
The Pink Handfish is known from only four specimens and was last recorded off the Tasman Peninsula in 1999.
Image credit – Karen Gowlett-Holmes

The Zeibell's handfish is restricted to isolated populations off eastern and southern Tasmania.
Image credit – Andrew Maver

spotted walking fish
Image credit – Phil Malin

Let me do some Completely Serious Adult Scientist squeeing about their little handsies. Gosh, they are cute. And it makes it much easier to imagine that whole "fish dragging themselves onto land" scenario when there are fish dragging themselves around on the ocean bottom.

Anyone who likes to hang on to their human uniqueness has lost another point: Yes, chimpanzees are more likely to follow the example of a high-status individual. It's well-embedded in us to not just care about information, but the source and authority of that information. Of course in many cases "high-status" doesn't mean squat about actual authoritativeness, but I suspect that's largely a complication introduced by the higher complexity of our societies and knowledge.

I need to read this in more detail to see if I think what they're doing is useful, but the problem, of combining a variety of free-text data relating to species and classification, is certainly real. If I was still working on skeletal ontologies, I'd have read it by now.

And harking back to my PhD, large-scale cheap HLA typing of East African populations. It's interesting that they think a requirement for cheap typing is focussing on the specific alleles expected in a particular population - I guess cosmopolitan populations with their diverse genetics are always going to be messy.