Y-chromosome sequencing of King Richard III

An unexpected result was obtained from the recently recovered bones of Richard III, the anointed king of England until he was killed by an invading army under Henry Tudor. It seems that his Y chromosome doesn’t match those of his family. This could be a “false paternity” finding or it could be a run-of-the-mill lab error.

DNA analysis and genealogy

Genealogy is getting a boost from DNA analysis, which both sparks interest and helps people to know where to look.

The genes that build America makes some good points, some of them not obvious. One is that black Americans who are descended from slaves depend on white families keeping and allowing them access to records, since their family histories are found in wills and bills of sale.

Autism from genetic damage

Large-scale genetic analysis allows scientists to find abnormal DNA in congenital diseases such as autism. Better diagnosis is helping doctors to detect the signs of autism in babies as young as six months. The current evidence shows that new mutations, mostly in the sperm of fathers 35 and over, are associated with autism. Unfortunately, it’s not just one mutation or genetic marker but almost a different one in every family: “Gene studies begin to unravel autism puzzle” (2012)

Also, it seems to be a genetic weakness or predisposition: autism is almost unknown in Africa but Africans who move to England start to see it. It has been associated with a lack of Vitamin D, which perhaps protects against the brain anomalies that cause autism: “What if Vitamin D deficiency is a cause of autism?” (2009). That children in the developed world are spending more time indoors could contribute to the problem.

Symphony of Science: DNA and genetics

This video is a hymn to learning about the role of DNA in our lives.

It appears to be a subtle infomercial.

Giving the lie to “mutation can’t create new information”

I often hear “mutation can’t create anything new, only damage” as a criticism of genetic mechanisms that supply variation in organisms. It’s not true, since there are so many mutations that some of them are immediately useful. But another mechanism of variation is gene duplication. Once you have two identical genes (“No new information,” chant the creationists), one of them is free to change into something else. It’s like hiring two waiters. Both of them may have the same job description, but one can take orders while the other fetches them, or lays tables, or ushers people to their seats.

I want creationists to imagine one of those children’s activity tables where organizers pass out photocopied line drawings to be coloured. Do they imagine that all those duplicated sheets end up the same after the children are finished? Don’t they remember the walls of multi-coloured art based on the same picture? What makes them think evolution can’t do the same with duplicate genes? It is wilful stupidity.

Foundational toolkit genes

There’s a nice tutorial at the University of Utah website about foundational toolkit genes, using genes for eyes as an example.

In fact, that whole Learn Genetics site looks like a good resource for anyone curious about genes and their effects.

Lysenkoism in the Bible

As someone mentioned the other day, the biblical story of Jacob getting spotted sheep by making pregnant sheep look at mottled sticks could be read as support for Lysenkoism:

T. D. Lysenko


[Lysenko] was inclined to enunciations of the wildest voluntarism: “In order to obtain a certain result, You must want to obtain precisely that result; if you want to obtain a certain result, you will obtain it …. I need only such people as will obtain the results I need”. Older scientists were, of course, horrified at such talk, so utterly alien to the habits of mind in which scientific method was grounded.

But Lysenko was the man of the hour, suited as he was to step into the role of the man of the people, the man of the soil, who had come up from humble origins under the revolution and who directed all of his energies into the great tasks of socialist construction. He knew well how to whip up massive peasant support, how to woo journalists, and how to enlist the enthusiasm of party and government officials. He began to be pictured as the model scientist for the new era. He was credited with conscientiously bringing a massive increase in grain yield to the Soviet state, while geneticists idly speculated on eye colour in fruit flies. —Helen Sheehan, “Who Was Lysenko? What Was Lysenkoism?” under subhead “TD Lysenko”

Is anyone else reminded of (Paragraph 1) “The Universe gives you what you ask for” and (Paragraph 2) Sarah Palin?

Lysenko’s career was a tragedy for science in the Soviet Union with dozens if not hundreds of Soviet scientists losing their jobs, being imprisoned, and even being executed for insisting on genetics (not wishes) and scientific research, not slipshod demonstrations and faulty record-keeping, as the basis for successful agriculture.

The author concludes

My own view of what is required in the way of an analysis of Lysenkoism is that it cannot be understood simply as a story of personal opportunism and political terror, nor as a cautionary tale against the dangers of bureaucratic interference in intellectual life or of ideological distortion of science….

What went wrong was that the proper procedures for coming to terms with such complex issues were short-circuited by grasping for easy slogans and simplistic solutions and imposing them by administrative fiat.

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