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01/04/2006

Good News and Bad in 2005

I’m back after a two-week hiatus and, with the end of a frightful
year and a birthday last week, I’m in a reflective mode. Talking
with a friend of my vintage recently, we agreed that we couldn’t
have lived in a better time in human history, especially for a
scientist. Born in the same year (1927) that Lindbergh flew the
Atlantic, I’ve witnessed all manner of major scientific and
technological advances. Take sliced bread. When I was born,
everyone had to slice his or her own bread. (There have also
been social advances; fifty years ago I would have said “…. slice
his own bread.”) According to an article by Evan Morris in the
January 2006 Reader’s Digest, it was in 1933 that Wonder Bread
introduced the pre-sliced loaf to the American consumer.

There have been many advances deserving of being called “the
best thing since sliced bread”, the popularity of which gave rise
to the phrase. Growing up in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania in
the 1930s, I remember the iceman delivering big blocks of ice for
our icebox – electric refrigerators were not yet all that common.
We got our milk (raw) from the milkman, veggies from the
vegetable man and bread from the breadman (my cousin Phyllis,
who was living with us at the time, married our breadman!). The
supermarket and bar codes were yet to appear.

Although the first demonstration of television took place a few
months before my birth in 1927, it was over two decades before
TV made its way into our homes. Instead, we listened to the
radio for our news from Lowell Thomas and from Edward R.
Murrow reporting from London during the bombings of World
War II. Those radios contained vacuum tubes, each of which
occupied more space than today’s iPod, which has a mind-
boggling storage capacity for one who grew up in the days of
those fragile 78 rpm records.

But enough reminiscing; let’s reflect on some of the major
scientific stories of the past year. Unfortunately, the ongoing
story that has been grabbing headlines recently is one showing
that science, as with any other occupation, has its bad apples.
I’m referring, of course, to the South Korean researcher Woo
Suk Hwang, who claimed in a paper published in Science last
May that he had created 11 lines of stem cells from cloned
human embryos derived from 11 patients with various diseases.
The achievement was hailed as a very important achievement in
stem cell research. Patient-specific stem cells held out the
possibility that stem cell therapies could eventually be tailored to
address the medical problems of those patients.

Last week, an AP dispatch from Seoul by Bo-Mi Lim in the
December 30 Star-Ledger reported that an investigative panel at
Seoul National University has concluded that Hwang fabricated
the evidence for all 11 of the stem cell colonies. Earlier reports
credit Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh (where I
did my graduate work) as being one of the whistle blowers in the
case. He was one of 23 other authors of the Science paper. I’ve
mentioned in the past the frequent appearance of papers with 10,
20 or more authors, a consequence of the involvement of teams
of workers on different aspects of a project, often from groups
scattered over the globe. These workers, and reviewers, must
rely on the honesty of others in their parts of the project. Sadly,
that was not the case.

Another big story this past year involved school boards that
insert so-called intelligent design “theory” or “science” into the
science curriculum. I’m happy to say that a fellow alumnus of
Dickinson College (where I did my undergraduate work) has
weighed in on the subject in a very forceful manner. U. S.
District Judge John Jones, class of 1977, not only is a Republican
and attends church but also was appointed to the federal
judgeship by President Bush.

Judge Jones’ ruling came in the case brought by parents in
Dover, Pennsylvania against the Dover Area School Board for
inserting intelligent design into the biology curriculum. I noted
in an earlier column that, in November, Dover voters voted out
members of the Board that supported this action. In his decision,
handed down on December 20, Jones delivered what AP’s
Martha Raffaele in the December 21 Star-Ledger termed a
“stinging attack” on the school board. Jones cited the
“breathtaking inanity” of the board’s policy, saying the evidence
was “overwhelming” that intelligent design is “a mere relabeling
of creationism, and not a scientific theory”. He concluded that
intelligent design “violates the centuries-old ground rules of
science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation” and
that its attacks on evolution “have been refuted by the scientific
community.” Hey, if Alito isn’t confirmed for the Supreme
Court, I nominate Judge Jones!

Coincidentally, the journal Science revealed its “Breakthrough of
the Year” and what do you know? The choice for 2005 is
“Evolution in Action”. As if to underscore Judge Jones’
decision, an article on the breakthrough choice by Elizabeth
Culotta and Elizabeth Pennish in the December 23 Science states
“Today evolution is the foundation of all biology, so basic and
all-pervasive that scientists sometimes take its importance for
granted.”

Why the choice of “evolution in action”? The answer is that
2005 saw major progress in the quest to determine how evolution
actually takes place. I’ve already discussed in a previous column
one of the most important studies, one that promises to reveal
what it is that makes us human. The decoding of the chimpanzee
genome allows researchers to search for differences in the human
and chimp genes and in the noncoding (formerly called “junk”)
sequences of DNA that can tell us how we evolved to differ from
the chimp.

Biologists are also fascinated by the European corn borer and a
bird known as the European blackcap. Why the interest in these
two very different critters? Both are showing signs that they may
be in the process of evolving into separate species. Take the
blackcaps, which share breeding grounds in southern Germany
and Austria. Over a period of decades, studies have shown that
more and more blackcaps are heading north for the winter
instead of going south. One characteristic that typically is
indicative of different species is that they don’t mate with each
other. Rsearchers are finding that the northerly blackcaps get
back to the breeding grounds earlier and hence mate with other
northerners before the southerners arrive. Evolution in action?

The European corn borers, on the other hand, aren’t much for
traveling and may share the same field. However, while some
borer caterpillars maintain their taste for corn, others have grown
to prefer hops and mugwort. Apparently, their choices of diet
have led to the two groups emitting different pheromones, those
compounds that attract members of the opposite sex. As a result,
the couples pairing off are those sharing the same dietary
preferences. Again, evolution in action. In the future, there may
well be corn borers and mugwort borers. (OK, I had no idea
what mugwort is and my dictionary wasn’t very informative
except to say that it has little clusters of greenish-yellow flowers.
I’d personally stick to the corn.)

Evolution in action can be a dangerous thing. In fact, our very
lives may depend on evolution not being in action. The avian flu
virus that has killed half of infected humans so far has been
confined, with a few exceptions, to China, Vietnam, Cambodia,
Thailand and Indonesia. These areas all lie within or close to the
East Asia-Australia flyway for migratory birds that spread the
disease. As long as the avian flu is spread only by birds or fowl,
we in the Western Hemisphere are relatively safe. An article by
Professor Howard Markel of the University of Michigan in the
January 1 Sunday New York Times has a map of the major
global flyways. The good news is that, for us in the Western
Hemisphere, there is very little overlap of our three flyways with
those of Europe, Africa and Asia. The overlaps occur in the
northern regions of Alaska and Canada where intermingling of
the birds is rare.

However, the ball game changes completely if the avian flu virus
evolves into one that can spread through human-to-human
contact. A major scientific breakthrough last year was the
sequencing of the flu virus that caused the 1918 pandemic, which
killed between 20 and 50 million people. The 1918 virus was
recovered from the body of a flu victim frozen in Alaskan
permafrost all these years. The researchers found that the 1918
virus started out as a pure avian virus and that only a handful of
mutations gave it the ability to spread human-to-human. A
devastating example of evolution in action!

I apologize for starting 2006 on such a down note and promise to
pursue less gloomy themes in upcoming columns. Meanwhile, I
can’t help thinking that many who believe Darwin was wrong
are, or should be praying that avian flu doesn’t spread further,
not realizing that they are in essence acknowledging how right
Darwin was. Let’s hope we all have a happy 2006, free from any
avian evolution in action.

Footnote: Some people are surprised to hear that, living only
some 20 miles from New York City, we still have a milkman. I
was surprised when, a couple of years ago, he switched from a
New Jersey dairy as his source of milk to Harrisburg Dairies,
located just 10 miles from Mechanicsburg.

Footnote to the Footnote: After writing the above, I decided to
check on the possibility that Harrisburg Dairies might have
bought out Konhaus Dairy, the dairy that delivered our raw milk
when I lived in Mechanicsburg. I was astounded when I went to
yahoo.com and searched “Konhaus Dairy”. What should come
up as the first entry but a story about a 10-year-old boy and
Konhaus delivering raw milk – it was my column of 7/14/2004!
If you’re in need of lighter fare after the gloomy stuff above,
click on the archives below and then click on the 7/14/2004
column. It’s about ice cream.

Allen F. Bortrum



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-01/04/2006-      
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Dr. Bortrum

01/04/2006

Good News and Bad in 2005

I’m back after a two-week hiatus and, with the end of a frightful
year and a birthday last week, I’m in a reflective mode. Talking
with a friend of my vintage recently, we agreed that we couldn’t
have lived in a better time in human history, especially for a
scientist. Born in the same year (1927) that Lindbergh flew the
Atlantic, I’ve witnessed all manner of major scientific and
technological advances. Take sliced bread. When I was born,
everyone had to slice his or her own bread. (There have also
been social advances; fifty years ago I would have said “…. slice
his own bread.”) According to an article by Evan Morris in the
January 2006 Reader’s Digest, it was in 1933 that Wonder Bread
introduced the pre-sliced loaf to the American consumer.

There have been many advances deserving of being called “the
best thing since sliced bread”, the popularity of which gave rise
to the phrase. Growing up in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania in
the 1930s, I remember the iceman delivering big blocks of ice for
our icebox – electric refrigerators were not yet all that common.
We got our milk (raw) from the milkman, veggies from the
vegetable man and bread from the breadman (my cousin Phyllis,
who was living with us at the time, married our breadman!). The
supermarket and bar codes were yet to appear.

Although the first demonstration of television took place a few
months before my birth in 1927, it was over two decades before
TV made its way into our homes. Instead, we listened to the
radio for our news from Lowell Thomas and from Edward R.
Murrow reporting from London during the bombings of World
War II. Those radios contained vacuum tubes, each of which
occupied more space than today’s iPod, which has a mind-
boggling storage capacity for one who grew up in the days of
those fragile 78 rpm records.

But enough reminiscing; let’s reflect on some of the major
scientific stories of the past year. Unfortunately, the ongoing
story that has been grabbing headlines recently is one showing
that science, as with any other occupation, has its bad apples.
I’m referring, of course, to the South Korean researcher Woo
Suk Hwang, who claimed in a paper published in Science last
May that he had created 11 lines of stem cells from cloned
human embryos derived from 11 patients with various diseases.
The achievement was hailed as a very important achievement in
stem cell research. Patient-specific stem cells held out the
possibility that stem cell therapies could eventually be tailored to
address the medical problems of those patients.

Last week, an AP dispatch from Seoul by Bo-Mi Lim in the
December 30 Star-Ledger reported that an investigative panel at
Seoul National University has concluded that Hwang fabricated
the evidence for all 11 of the stem cell colonies. Earlier reports
credit Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh (where I
did my graduate work) as being one of the whistle blowers in the
case. He was one of 23 other authors of the Science paper. I’ve
mentioned in the past the frequent appearance of papers with 10,
20 or more authors, a consequence of the involvement of teams
of workers on different aspects of a project, often from groups
scattered over the globe. These workers, and reviewers, must
rely on the honesty of others in their parts of the project. Sadly,
that was not the case.

Another big story this past year involved school boards that
insert so-called intelligent design “theory” or “science” into the
science curriculum. I’m happy to say that a fellow alumnus of
Dickinson College (where I did my undergraduate work) has
weighed in on the subject in a very forceful manner. U. S.
District Judge John Jones, class of 1977, not only is a Republican
and attends church but also was appointed to the federal
judgeship by President Bush.

Judge Jones’ ruling came in the case brought by parents in
Dover, Pennsylvania against the Dover Area School Board for
inserting intelligent design into the biology curriculum. I noted
in an earlier column that, in November, Dover voters voted out
members of the Board that supported this action. In his decision,
handed down on December 20, Jones delivered what AP’s
Martha Raffaele in the December 21 Star-Ledger termed a
“stinging attack” on the school board. Jones cited the
“breathtaking inanity” of the board’s policy, saying the evidence
was “overwhelming” that intelligent design is “a mere relabeling
of creationism, and not a scientific theory”. He concluded that
intelligent design “violates the centuries-old ground rules of
science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation” and
that its attacks on evolution “have been refuted by the scientific
community.” Hey, if Alito isn’t confirmed for the Supreme
Court, I nominate Judge Jones!

Coincidentally, the journal Science revealed its “Breakthrough of
the Year” and what do you know? The choice for 2005 is
“Evolution in Action”. As if to underscore Judge Jones’
decision, an article on the breakthrough choice by Elizabeth
Culotta and Elizabeth Pennish in the December 23 Science states
“Today evolution is the foundation of all biology, so basic and
all-pervasive that scientists sometimes take its importance for
granted.”

Why the choice of “evolution in action”? The answer is that
2005 saw major progress in the quest to determine how evolution
actually takes place. I’ve already discussed in a previous column
one of the most important studies, one that promises to reveal
what it is that makes us human. The decoding of the chimpanzee
genome allows researchers to search for differences in the human
and chimp genes and in the noncoding (formerly called “junk”)
sequences of DNA that can tell us how we evolved to differ from
the chimp.

Biologists are also fascinated by the European corn borer and a
bird known as the European blackcap. Why the interest in these
two very different critters? Both are showing signs that they may
be in the process of evolving into separate species. Take the
blackcaps, which share breeding grounds in southern Germany
and Austria. Over a period of decades, studies have shown that
more and more blackcaps are heading north for the winter
instead of going south. One characteristic that typically is
indicative of different species is that they don’t mate with each
other. Rsearchers are finding that the northerly blackcaps get
back to the breeding grounds earlier and hence mate with other
northerners before the southerners arrive. Evolution in action?

The European corn borers, on the other hand, aren’t much for
traveling and may share the same field. However, while some
borer caterpillars maintain their taste for corn, others have grown
to prefer hops and mugwort. Apparently, their choices of diet
have led to the two groups emitting different pheromones, those
compounds that attract members of the opposite sex. As a result,
the couples pairing off are those sharing the same dietary
preferences. Again, evolution in action. In the future, there may
well be corn borers and mugwort borers. (OK, I had no idea
what mugwort is and my dictionary wasn’t very informative
except to say that it has little clusters of greenish-yellow flowers.
I’d personally stick to the corn.)

Evolution in action can be a dangerous thing. In fact, our very
lives may depend on evolution not being in action. The avian flu
virus that has killed half of infected humans so far has been
confined, with a few exceptions, to China, Vietnam, Cambodia,
Thailand and Indonesia. These areas all lie within or close to the
East Asia-Australia flyway for migratory birds that spread the
disease. As long as the avian flu is spread only by birds or fowl,
we in the Western Hemisphere are relatively safe. An article by
Professor Howard Markel of the University of Michigan in the
January 1 Sunday New York Times has a map of the major
global flyways. The good news is that, for us in the Western
Hemisphere, there is very little overlap of our three flyways with
those of Europe, Africa and Asia. The overlaps occur in the
northern regions of Alaska and Canada where intermingling of
the birds is rare.

However, the ball game changes completely if the avian flu virus
evolves into one that can spread through human-to-human
contact. A major scientific breakthrough last year was the
sequencing of the flu virus that caused the 1918 pandemic, which
killed between 20 and 50 million people. The 1918 virus was
recovered from the body of a flu victim frozen in Alaskan
permafrost all these years. The researchers found that the 1918
virus started out as a pure avian virus and that only a handful of
mutations gave it the ability to spread human-to-human. A
devastating example of evolution in action!

I apologize for starting 2006 on such a down note and promise to
pursue less gloomy themes in upcoming columns. Meanwhile, I
can’t help thinking that many who believe Darwin was wrong
are, or should be praying that avian flu doesn’t spread further,
not realizing that they are in essence acknowledging how right
Darwin was. Let’s hope we all have a happy 2006, free from any
avian evolution in action.

Footnote: Some people are surprised to hear that, living only
some 20 miles from New York City, we still have a milkman. I
was surprised when, a couple of years ago, he switched from a
New Jersey dairy as his source of milk to Harrisburg Dairies,
located just 10 miles from Mechanicsburg.

Footnote to the Footnote: After writing the above, I decided to
check on the possibility that Harrisburg Dairies might have
bought out Konhaus Dairy, the dairy that delivered our raw milk
when I lived in Mechanicsburg. I was astounded when I went to
yahoo.com and searched “Konhaus Dairy”. What should come
up as the first entry but a story about a 10-year-old boy and
Konhaus delivering raw milk – it was my column of 7/14/2004!
If you’re in need of lighter fare after the gloomy stuff above,
click on the archives below and then click on the 7/14/2004
column. It’s about ice cream.

Allen F. Bortrum