Tuesday, 12 February 2008

So what's the harm?

An argument that I often encounter when batteling pseudoscientific ideas is "So what? What harm does it do to anyone?" Alot of people seem to think that passing off pseudoscience as "fact" is a "victimless crime". Going to see the phychic doesnt hurt anyone even if it is bunk, people think. I vehemently think that this is not the case; psuedoscience, religion, alternative therapies/medicines and just plain nonrational thinking does countless amounts of damage and the loss of many lives every year. And I've found a website that will help get this across to anyone who still thinks that there is "no harm" in quackery.

Appropriately titled What's The Harm, this site lists case studies that are submitted by users about people who have been hurt, either physically, mentally, or finacially, by quack medical claims, religious beliefs, or other forms of pseudoscience and nonthinking. At press time, the site boasts a statistic of "2,435 people killed, 117,727 injured and over $115,817,617 in economic damages" due to such causes. Many of the people featured on the cite are innocent children, who have died because of their parents' religious beliefs, or because their parents chose "alternative therapies" as cures for their childrens' illnesses.

This is the reality of this kind of dangerous thinking, folks. Religion and peudoscience kills.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Brand new base pair created.

The lexicon of life just got a little larger. According to a recent article from New Sceintist, researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, have created the world's first synthetic base pair. After about 10 years of research, Dr. Floyd Romesberg has designed two new molecules that are accurately and "naturally" incorporated into growing DNA strands by DNA Polymerases, called dSICS and dMMO2. This expands the 4 letter "alphabet" of DNA from 4 bases to 6. Borrowing high throughput screening methods usually employed by drug developers, Romesberg screened though about 3600 candidate molecules and found that dSICS and dMMO2 worked the best. Still, dSICS seemed to pair with itself better than with its intended partner. This meant that the two molecules underwent some 15 modifications to alter their pairing specificites until one change seemed to work - adding a methly group onto the side of dSICS (the base is more accurately named d5SICS). The two new bases act just like regular bases, as far as the cell is concerned.

But what good is this? Adding two new base pairs could give DNA the ability to code for a greater variety of amino acids, meaning a number of new proteins can be produced. This idea, however, is somewhat pointless - the genetic code already codes for the esscential amino acids; any "rare" amino acids are just altered versions of the core 20, modified through specific biochemical pathways. Cells already produce a vast variety of amino acids using the 4 bases we have now. Romesberg has his sights set on other uses for dSICS and sMMO2 - applications in building nanostructures, molecular computing, and highly specific primers or tags. Even more ambitiously, he sees his work as a step towards "increasing" evolution: "We want to import these into a cell, study RNA trafficking, and in the longest term, expand the genetic code and 'evolvability' of an organism."

This technology is far from becoming widely used, and there is still much work to be done to get dSICS and dMMO2 to be used for molecular applications. Nevertheless, the potential behind new synthetic bases will make then an incredibly useful tool in the future.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

The United States of Canada

As much as it pains me to say it, our country is slowly transmorgifying into a colder version of the US (I blame the Harper government). If you haven't heard by now, Harper and his lackies have recently disbanded the position of National Science Advisor. The National Science Advisor was basically the link between the scientific community and the Prime Minister; he also helped advise the government on its role in sceince and scientific policy. When it comes to issues like GMOs, or global warming, the government no longer has a voice of reason helping to explain the issues and to clear up the cloudiness caused by the popular media and industry on such issues. Basically, Prime Minister Harper no longer gives a crap about science - something I find terribly troublesome. He's looking more like Bush Jr with every passing week.

And if that were not bad enough, the government has put a muzzle on our environmental scientists. According to the National Post:
Environment Canada has "muzzled" its scientists, ordering them to refer all media queries to Ottawa where communications officers will help them respond with "approved lines."

The new policy, which went into force in recent weeks and sent a chill through the department research divisions, is designed to control the department's media message and ensure there are no "surprises" for Environment Minister John Baird and senior management when they open the newspaper or turn on the television, according to documents obtained by Canwest News Service.

In effect, this means that the government has to approve any responses scientists may have to queries by the media about environmental issues; any response they dislike, they have the ability to "disapprove". Our environmental scientists are basically being censored.

What is wrong with our country? It feels like the federal government has suddenly turned anti-science. No good can come of this...