2014 July 31 Thursday
Ötzi The Iceman Carried Heart Disease Gene

The 5300 year old frozen ice man recovered from the Ötztal Alps had several genetic variants for heart disease. If we ever clone Ötzi we should first fix his genes.

But wait: What if these genetic variants also confer some sort of benefits? We need to be sure we would not rob some future Ötzi clone of benefits of genes that increase heart disease risks.

I think cells recovered from frozen ancient human remains found in the Alps or northern Scandinavia should not be used for cloning until we have a much clearer picture of all genetic variants that affect behavior. It would be a really bad idea to clone a long dead psychopath or very violent personality. Also, we should have a clear picture of what their IQ is likely to be.

By Randall Parker 2014 July 31 03:48 PM 
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2014 July 19 Saturday
Bring Back The Passenger Pigeon With Biotechnology?

An Associated Press article asks: Could science bring back the passenger pigeon?

The answer is Yes. Unclear on when. Surely 10 or 20 years from now. Sequence the DNA of a bunch of passenger pigeon specimens. Figure out which DNA sequences are due to decay of specimens. Generate good DNA sequence. Use another pigeon species for an egg. Implant DNA. This would be hard to do today.

Doing this with an intact genome that hasn't accumulated damage might be in the range of what a good lab could do today. But I suspect the genome would need to be constructed from lots of sequencing info. That's hard. If we can't use an existing intact genome then constructing one and getting the epigenetic state right is beyond our current technology. But in 20 years I think it will be possible and maybe sooner.

The more interesting question: Should we bring back any extinct species? For what reasons?

I can see a research purpose to bring back species in controlled conditions: Study their behavior and metabolism. I'm most interested in Neanderthals, Denisovans, and other human relatives. How smart were they? What sorts of personalities did they have?

Another reason: habitat restoration. Set aside some areas to revert to natural conditions and restore species that used to inhabit these areas. This has been done with wolves in the western United States as well as with other species on a number of islands where concerted efforts were made to wipe out invasive species and reintroduce native species. The same could be done with extinct species for which sufficient DNA can be found.

But I'd like to see an end of habitat destruction even more. Humans have destroyed the habitats of many extinct species. Remaining natural habitats have shrunk so far that other species still living in those still shrinking habitats are endangered and don't need the competition from reintroduced species.

Some species could only be brought back to live in zoos. There's not enough natural areas left for them. That's the fate that awaits some big cats and other species. Wild zones in Africa, south Asia, Pacific islands, and other regions continue to shrink in the face of growing human populations and growing demand for land, trees, meat, and other things found in the remaining wild zones.

I think we should concentrate on getting lots of tissue samples from current endangered species so that we will have an easier time bringing them back once they are gone. We need lots of samples so that they can be brought back with a healthy amount of genetic diversity. Then if a couple of hundred years from now should the human race still exist and with smaller numbers we could bring back some species.

By Randall Parker 2014 July 19 09:28 PM 
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2014 July 14 Monday
Study: No Heart Benefit From Moderate Alcohol

Analysis of 50 studies finds no heart benefit from moderate alcohol consumption.

PHILADELPHIA – Reducing the amount of alcoholic beverages consumed, even for light-to-moderate drinkers, may improve cardiovascular health, including a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, lower body mass index (BMI) and blood pressure, according to a new multi-center study published in The BMJ and co-led by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The latest findings call into question previous studies which suggest that consuming light-to-moderate amounts of alcohol (0.6-0.8 fluid ounces/day) may have a protective effect on cardiovascular health.

The new research reviewed evidence from more than 50 studies that linked drinking habits and cardiovascular health for over 260,000 people. Researchers found that individuals who carry a specific gene which typically leads to lower alcohol consumption over time have, on average, superior cardiovascular health records. Specifically, the results show that individuals who consume 17 percent less alcohol per week have on average a 10 percent reduced risk of coronary heart disease, lower blood pressure and a lower body mass inde

What we really need for our health: time travel. Travel a few decades into the future to get stem cell therapies, gene therapies, and injections of nanobot repair machines. Get replacement organs that are very young. Get all precancerous cells wiped out. Then get back a time machine and come back to the present in a fully rejuvenated body.

By Randall Parker 2014 July 14 10:02 PM 
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2014 July 13 Sunday
Shared Genetic Differences In Reading And Numeric Abilities

There is a big overlap in the genes that cause differences in reading ability and the genes that cause differences in mathematical ability.

Around half of the genes that influence how well a child can read also play a role in their mathematics ability, say scientists from UCL, the University of Oxford and King's College London who led a study into the genetic basis of cognitive traits.

While mathematics and reading ability are known to run in families, the complex system of genes affecting these traits is largely unknown. The finding deepens scientists' understanding of how nature and nurture interact, highlighting the important role that a child's learning environment may have on the development of reading and mathematics skills, and the complex, shared genetic basis of these cognitive traits.

The collaborative study, published today in Nature Communications as part of the Wellcome Trust Case-Control Consortium, used data from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) to analyse the influence of genetics on the reading and mathematics performance of 12-year-old children from nearly 2,800 British families.

Since each genetic variant that causes differences in learning ability and thinking speed contributes only small amounts to the total set of genetic variants for intelligence it is hard to pick out each of the variants. I think we are waiting for sequencing to become cheap enough to enable the collection of the enormous amount of genetic data needed to identify all the genes that cause small impacts. We might need the genetic sequences of millions of people and their measured IQ levels to tease out all these genetic variants.

Most differences in learning ability are caused by genetic differences.

Professor Robert Plomin (King's College London), who leads the TEDS study, and one of the senior authors, said: "This is the first time we estimate genetic influence on learning ability using DNA alone. The study does not point to specific genes linked to literacy or numeracy, but rather suggests that genetic influence on complex traits, like learning abilities, and common disorders, like learning disabilities, is caused by many genes of very small effect size. The study also confirms findings from previous twin studies that genetic differences among children account for most of the differences between children in how easily they learn to read and to do maths. Children differ genetically in how easy or difficult they find learning, and we need to recognise, and respect, these individual differences. Finding such strong genetic influence does not mean that there is nothing we can do if a child finds learning difficult — heritability does not imply that anything is set in stone – it just means it may take more effort from parents, schools and teachers to bring the child up to speed."

By Randall Parker 2014 July 13 11:10 PM 
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Genetic Differences In Chimp Intelligence

Yet another way we are similar to chimpanzees: Big role for genes and small role for environment in determining intelligence.

ATLANTA–A chimpanzee's intelligence is largely determined by its genes, while environmental factors may be less important than scientists previously thought, according to a Georgia State University research study.

The study found that some, but not all, cognitive, or mental, abilities, in chimpanzees depend significantly on the genes they inherit. The findings are reported in the latest issue of Current Biology.

Intelligence runs in chimp families. Just like humans.

"Intelligence runs in families," said Dr. William Hopkins, professor in the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience at Georgia State and research scientist in the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University. "The suggestion here is that genes play a really important role in their performance on tasks while non-genetic factors didn't seem to explain a lot. So that's new."

Comparison of brain genes in humans and chimps could point to important genes that have genetic variants that cause differences in intelligence levels. Some of the intelligence related genes in chimps that vary between chimps might vary between humans too.

The findings suggest that differences in cognition may have arisen in the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees about 5 million years ago. The findings may also lead to the discovery of particular intelligence-related genes.

The discovery of genetic variants in humans that cause differences in intelligence will cause a huge change in mating and reproductive practices within 20 years. My guess is the change will start within 10 years as genetic variants for intelligence begin to be identified. Affluent people especially will go more for IVF. They will start paying for genetic testing on multiple embryos to choose embryos with higher IQ-boosting genes. That will cause a huge acceleration in human evolution.

By Randall Parker 2014 July 13 10:58 PM 
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2014 July 10 Thursday
Embedded Birth Control Chip: Lasts 16 Years

A company, microchips in Lexington Massachusetts, is going to try to bring it to market. It could be turned off externally to allow a pregnancy.

I want embedded sensor systems along with embedded drug delivery systems.

With multiple separately controllable reservoirs a series of doses can be delivered.

microchips' technology is based on proprietary reservoir arrays that are used to store and protect potent drugs within the body for long periods of time. These arrays are designed for compatibility with preprogrammed microprocessors, wireless telemetry, or sensor feedback loops to provide active control. Individual device reservoirs can be opened on demand or on a predetermined schedule to precisely control drug release or sensor activation.

Suppose you are alive 20 years from now and an assortment of drug-dispensing embedded devices are available. Will you want to get some implanted?

I can see some types of embedded drugs useful in emergency situations. For example, people who work in primitive environments with high risk of dangerous bacterial infection could have embedded antibiotics. Or how about embedded modafinil in case you find yourself needing to stay awake in an emergency?

Here's another practical use: If you need to sometimes shift your circadian rhythm to a different sleep cycle you could program an embedded device to gradually cause a shift of time for a melatonin spike. Starting to stay up too late? Time to instruct your body to shift back to the sleeping time range you prefer.

I'd like ways to make myself more or less sensitive to distractions depending on what I am doing. If some drugs could do that I could program myself to shift into different states on different days depending on what's on my schedule.

By Randall Parker 2014 July 10 08:34 PM 
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2014 July 05 Saturday
Hospital Chain Tracking Spending Habits To Warn Patients

Companies mine credit card data to sell you stuff similar or complementary to stuff you already buy. If you spend o unhealthy vices you'll get more unhealthy vice pitches. In an interesting twist Carolinas HealthCare System is going to use patient spending history to identify people to steer away from unhealthy paths.

If the early steps are successful, though, Dulin says he’d like to renegotiate to get the data provider to share more specific details with the company’s doctors on their patients’ spending habits. “The data is already used to market to people to get them to do things that might not always be in the best interest of the consumer,” he says. “We are looking to apply this for something good.”

Wow. I wonder if this will work. People are resistant to change. But if your doctor's office calls up to tell you how many times you eat fast food you might be surprised or at least embarrassed and want to change. Or you might just switch to cash.

The data has a number of other curious uses. Read the full article and click to the second page for details.

By Randall Parker 2014 July 05 08:02 PM 
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2014 July 04 Friday
Denisovan DNA Adapts Tibetans To High Altitude Living

Human genetic divergence as humans humans spread across the globe was sped up by mating with other related species. Genetic sequencing of extinct human relatives known as Denisovans has enabled comparison of Han, Tibetan and Denisovan DNA. This has led to discovery of DNA in Tibetans from Denisovans that adapts Tibetans to high altitude living,

Shenzhen, July 2, 2014---An international team, led by researchers from BGI and University of California, presented their latest significant finding that the altitude adaptation in Tibet might be caused by the introgression of DNA from extinct Denisovans or Denisovan-related individuals into humans. This work published online in Nature sheds new light into understanding human's adaptation to diverse environments including temperature extremes, new pathogens, and high altitude. Other important collaborators of this study include the scientists from The People's Hospital of Lhasa, South China University of Technology, among others.

The evolutionary adaptations has allowed Tibetans to have no trouble living at 13,000 feet all the year round.

The rest of us can't function as well at 13,000 feet. Women without the adaptations miscarry at a higher rate.

Human groups as they migrated across Eurasian and become separated for long periods of time developed genetic variants that adapted them to local conditions. But some humans got much more sophisticated adaptations from Denisovans who had been living in Asia for hundreds of thousands of years.

While Han Chinese and TIbetans have 0.2% Denisovan genes other groups in the Pacific islands have higher percentages of Denisovan genes. We do not yet know what adaptative advantages they gain from these Denisovan genes.

Steal genes from another species and then drive that species to extinction. Did humans do this?

"We have very clear evidence that this version of the gene came from Denisovans," a mysterious human relative that went extinct 40,000-50,000 years ago, around the same time as the more well-known Neanderthals, under pressure from modern humans, said principal author Rasmus Nielsen, UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology. "This shows very clearly and directly that humans evolved and adapted to new environments by getting their genes from another species."

Europeans similarly have some Neanderthal genes. We will also eventually learn what adaptive advantage they provide.

Will geneticists eventually uncover Denisovan genes that are not in any human population that would provide some perceived benefit to humans? Will we see humans adding some Denisovan or Neanderthal genes into embryos that they create to have children? Or will Denisovans or Neanderthals be cloned ad brought back to life?

By Randall Parker 2014 July 04 09:49 PM 
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Single Genetic Letter Causes Blond Hair

Blond hair is very popular among women. Blondness can be caused by just a tweak to the Kit ligand gene. Sure to be a popular offspring genetic engineering choice for daughters.

A single-letter change in the genetic code is enough to generate blond hair in humans, in dramatic contrast to our dark-haired ancestors. A new analysis by Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) scientists has pinpointed that change, which is common in the genomes of Northern Europeans, and shown how it fine-tunes the regulation of an essential gene.

“This particular genetic variation in humans is associated with blond hair, but it isn't associated with eye color or other pigmentation traits,” says David Kingsley, an HHMI investigator at Stanford University who led the study. “The specificity of the switch shows exactly how independent color changes can be encoded to produce specific traits in humans.” Kingsley and his colleagues published their findings in the June 1, 2014, issue of the journal Nature Genetics.

Since Kit ligand plays lots of roles I wonder whether blondness is a side effect of something else that was being selected for.

Kit ligand encodes a protein that aids the development of pigment-producing cells, so it made sense that changing its activity could affect hair or skin color. But the Kit ligand protein also plays a host of other roles throughout the body, influencing the behavior of blood stem cells, sperm or egg precursors, and neurons in the intestine.

I want to get into a time machine and go ahead 10 years to learn what most of the genetic variants do. But if I had a time machine I'd probably go ahead 30 to 40 years to get rejuvenation therapies.

By Randall Parker 2014 July 04 12:08 AM 
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2014 July 03 Thursday
Chimps Prefer African And Indian Musical Beats

Chimpanzees prefer silence to Western classical and rock music.

WASHINGTON – While preferring silence to music from the West, chimpanzees apparently like to listen to the different rhythms of music from Africa and India, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.

"Our objective was not to find a preference for different cultures' music. We used cultural music from Africa, India and Japan to pinpoint specific acoustic properties," said study coauthor Frans de Waal, PhD, of Emory University. "Past research has focused only on Western music and has not addressed the very different acoustic features of non-Western music. While nonhuman primates have previously indicated a preference among music choices, they have consistently chosen silence over the types of music previously tested."

They also do not like Japanese music. They might hear Japanese and Western music as threatening dominance displays.

When African and Indian music was played near their large outdoor enclosures, the chimps spent significantly more time in areas where they could best hear the music. When Japanese music was played, they were more likely to be found in spots where it was more difficult or impossible to hear the music. The African and Indian music in the experiment had extreme ratios of strong to weak beats, whereas the Japanese music had regular strong beats, which is also typical of Western music.

"Chimpanzees may perceive the strong, predictable rhythmic patterns as threatening, as chimpanzee dominance displays commonly incorporate repeated rhythmic sounds such as stomping, clapping and banging objects," said de Waal.

I wonder if Bonobos respond the same way.

By Randall Parker 2014 July 03 11:29 PM 
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Most Prefer Electric Shocks To Solitary Thinking

I shock therefore I am.

In fact, our own minds are so intolerable that many people chose to administer painful electric shocks to themselves rather than sit in quiet contemplation, researchers from the University of Virginia and Harvard discovered.

Here is the Science research paper.

The researchers were shocked by their results.

In a series of 11 studies, U.Va. psychologist Timothy Wilson and colleagues at U.Va. and Harvard University found that study participants from a range of ages generally did not enjoy spending even brief periods of time alone in a room with nothing to do but think, ponder or daydream. The participants, by and large, enjoyed much more doing external activities such as listening to music or using a smartphone. Some even preferred to give themselves mild electric shocks than to think.

“Those of us who enjoy some down time to just think likely find the results of this study surprising – I certainly do – but our study participants consistently demonstrated that they would rather have something to do than to have nothing other than their thoughts for even a fairly brief period of time,” Wilson said.

The period of time that Wilson and his colleagues asked participants to be alone with their thoughts ranged from six to 15 minutes. Many of the first studies involved college student participants, most of whom reported that this “thinking period” wasn’t very enjoyable and that it was hard to concentrate. So Wilson conducted another study with participants from a broad selection of backgrounds, ranging in age from 18 to 77, and found essentially the same results.

Some people need external stimulus. Would you rather sit in a room for 15 minutes thinking or give yourself an electric shock?

People do not enjoy being alone with nothing to do.

During several of Wilson’s experiments, participants were asked to sit alone in an unadorned room at a laboratory with no cell phone, reading materials or writing implements, and to spend six to 15 minutes – depending on the study – entertaining themselves with their thoughts. Afterward, they answered questions about how much they enjoyed the experience and if they had difficulty concentrating, among other questions.

Most reported they found it difficult to concentrate and that their minds wandered, though nothing was competing for their attention. On average the participants did not enjoy the experience. A similar result was found in further studies when the participants were allowed to spend time alone with their thoughts in their homes.

The experimenters then went on to add the electric shock option and most subjects pushed the button. ADHD much?

I'd like to see the experiment repeated in combination with IQ tests and some tests that measure the ability of people to concentrate. Do people with short attention spans have a greater likelihood to shock themselves? I bet multiple genetic variants contribute to the willingness to shock oneself when isolated. We need to separate out variants having to do with fear and pain thresholds from variants related to attention span and restlessness. People with really calm dispositions and low need for stimulus can probably sit in a room by themselves much more easily.

These findings probably have implications for industrial uses of psychology (the field known as industrial and organizational psychology). People who can stand to sit in a room thinking can probably handle some tasks that require calmly waiting for something that will then require they spur into action. Snipers come to mind. Are the people who feel compelled to shock themselves poorly suited to become snipers?

By Randall Parker 2014 July 03 02:52 PM 
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