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Comment Re:Epigenetics (Score 2) 252

This keeps on getting repeated so as a biology grad student I feel the obligation to inform everyone: yes, epigenetics is very important and makes up much of the story, but while a lot about it is still unknown, we have just as many tools to tackle it as we do with genomic DNA. We can sequence the epigenome (both histone marks and DNA CpG methylation), the transcriptome, the translatome, and the proteome (by mass spec, though not de novo) - almost any "ome" that involves any combination of nucleic acids and proteins can be probably sequenced and profiled by technology that we have today. The only thing that we probably can't easily do yet is metabolomics, because small molecules are not built out of well-understood monomeric units, but I bet there are tens if not hundreds of labs around the world working on this kind of technology as we speak.

My point is, the explosion in sequencing technology that have occurred in the 10 years since the completion of the human genome have put us solidly in the "post-genomics" era. The technologies to find the needle in the haystack exist in the here and now - the only real constraints are time, manpower (brainpower?), sample availability, and (to some extent) cost, in the sense that you need to not be in the bottom 30% of labs in terms of your funding situation in order to have enough money to be able to use these technologies. Brooke is human so there will be limitations in terms of what kinds of samples we can take without harming her health, but the people working on this will be able learn a lot from her genome (and her epigenome, transcriptome, and so on and so forth) and then they will be able to find those mutant candidate genes and make mouse or Drosophila models so that we can get a really detailed understanding of what is going on at the mechanistic level, and in those model organisms we can then whatever we want in order to get whatever types of data we need.

A reference for those who haven't seen it yet:

Comment Feature Set (Score 3, Insightful) 152

One question to ask would be the types of features that one would expect in these flexible phones in the near-term. Would they start out as having similar capabilities as current smartphones in the market, or would they be more "bread-and-butter" phones that will only see incorporation of additional capabilities in the long term?

Of greater interest to me is the possibility of flexible laptops and tablets. The reason why we have things like smartphones is because we can easily carry them around (e.g. in our pocket) and still have sufficient computational for day-to-day use. But if we can get flexible tablets/laptops to work, I think that'd be very useful in terms of packing greater amounts of computational power per (folded) surface area.

Comment Re:science is for everyone, not just a chosen few (Score 2) 29

I find that to be a bit of an unfair characterization.

Sure, there are definite socioeconomic barriers - it favors someone who was exposed to science at a young age, or could afford to get a decent education (or be so good that he could get into a school where he didn't have to pay tuition), or did not have family obligations that would distract from a career - these things all unfairly inhibit participation in science. But I don't think that things like patience and dedication can be characterized as "hand-picking," certainly not in any sense of it being "unfair."

The truth of the matter is, science is hard, and requires intelligence, diligence, and patience. No institution or society or culture has artificially increased its difficulty - its very nature means that in order to be able to understand what you're doing, you're going to have to put a lot of effort into it. If it's not within your personality to be able to put up with the work involved (though personality to some degree can probably be taught, so there's probably some socioeconomic dependence there), then it's unlikely that you're going to be able to make substantial contributions to your field.

That said, I am quite supportive of the Genspace project, for the simple reason that it is a great endeavor from an educational point of view. But that also means that the science done there is probably not going to be of the same caliber as the research that you see done at top academic labs around the world.

Comment Re:Judging accuracy (Score 1) 74

I'm actually having some trouble finding anything along the lines of "two genomes will be publicized, 110 will not" in the rules and guidelines (obtained from In addition, I don't see why there would be any restriction on publication once the genomes have been de-anonymized, regardless of whether a competition was organized. While the technology behind the instrumentation may be proprietary, the resulting sequences most certainly will not be, given that they were not previously invented.

Comment Re:Judging accuracy (Score 1) 74

We already would've gotten the research (and possibly the algorithms, the assemblers for some of the commercial instruments are open-source, if I recall correctly) for free since the companies would've been published their results either way (or for whatever the cost is for you to access the publications), so I don't think that was the motivation for having the competition.

Comment Re:epigenetic data may be more important (Score 3, Informative) 74

ChIP-seq and bisulfite sequencing are used to capture histone modifications and 5-methylcytosines, two of the most heavily-studied epigenetic marks. Being that they're variations of "vanilla" sequencing (even though raising good antibodies can be moderately expensive), I'd say they're fairly low-cost.

Comment Re:Relation to possible revolution? (Score 1) 101

Just fyi since I'm not sure this was clear to you, but Wen Jiabao is part of the current leadership that will retire next year, so he's not going to make too much of a difference other than in any influence that he might have over the leadership transition in promoting those with similar agendas as his - at least in terms of the agenda that he has publicly expressed, in any case.

(Some critics believe that Wen Jiabao's pro-reformist rhetoric is just a smoke screen by the Party to placate the masses while stalling and not actually doing anything - sort of analogous to the concept "empty campaign promises" here in the US. I don't know whether those criticisms are warranted given my lack of knowledge about the situation, just putting the possibility out there.)

Comment Re:Longer life span (Score 2) 162

Erm, I'm not sure about your explanation for why Einstein never got a Nobel prize for relativity. His theory of GR was published in 1915, he won the Nobel in 1921, but the famous eclipse experiment (which was the first novel experimental validation of GR) was in 1919. He got the prize for the photoelectric effect (which, along with Brownian motion and SR, was published in 1905), and he died in 1955. That's a 32-year gap, and Einstein got quite famous for relativity well before his death. I'm quite sure the Nobel committee could've easily awarded Einstein the prize had they wanted to do so.

Also, it appears based on the MSNBC article (I generally don't trust the media for accurate reports about studies, so this is just for what it's worth), that the analysis appears to have done its calculation based on the age of the scientist at the time of discovery, not at the time of recognition. You might argue for some sort of selective bias in the sense that only longer-living scientists tended to get recognized in the early 20th century, but then you would still have to show a negative correlation between a propensity for longer lifespan living under early-20th-century medicine and the age at which one's best work was done. In other words, if, according to your explanation, only the "healthier" scientists got recognized in the early 20th-century led to a bias in the data, that would have to mean that their health somehow enabled them to do their best work at a younger age compared to their "less healthy" peers. That doesn't seem to be a likely possibility for me, so I'm not sure your explanation makes that much sense.

Comment Re:I Just Can't Understand It (Score 3, Informative) 78

The difference is that Western corporations do it out of self-interest (as in protecting the individual), whereas corporations in east Asia do it to protect the individual _and_ to "protect the group." That's two hurdles to transparency and accountability as opposed to one. I am not qualified to comment on the normalized (say, by economic influence) magnitudes of transparency and accountability violations in different countries (an empirical question), but at least in terms of underlying psychological motivation, that's one more mental barrier that needs to be overcome.

So no need to get all riled up about the follies of Western corporations because I am well aware of those - I am simply stating that from the perspective of culturally ingrained notions, east Asians tend to have even more misplaced loyalty than Westerners (who are already bad enough).

Comment Re:I Just Can't Understand It (Score 4, Interesting) 78

I grew up in the States but am east Asian by ethnicity/heritage and have some knowledge of east Asian culture (though obviously my parents didn't think too highly of it, otherwise they probably would've made a more concerted effort to educate/indoctrinate me about it).

The concept is quite simple, it's primarily about bolstering external perception in order to promote the reputation of a group that one self-identities with - be that the family, the company, or the country. You define an in-group and an out-group, and within the in-group honesty and transparency is permitted (at least with respect to the domain of the in-group, you're not going to be sharing family secrets with your co-workers, for example). However, when it comes to the out-group, every effort is made to give the appearance that activities within the in-group are efficient, successful, "harmonious" (i.e. lack of conflict between members of the in-group) - in other words, bury all dirty secrets and make everything look utopian, even if it isn't. Transparency is discouraged because it is bad PR, and members of the out-group (i.e. the rest of society) are expected to have lower expectations as to the amount of information that is provided through "official" channels. So in order to obtain such information, members of the out-group turn to gossip, espionage, etc.

I wouldn't say that "Western" culture (I hate that term because I reject the existence of that distinction as philosophically valid) doesn't practice "face-saving" to some degree, it just isn't taken to the extremes that it is in east Asia because of societal expectations regarding transparency and accountability. I for one think that this is one area where people in China, Korea, and Japan can learn a lot from "Western" countries. After all, face-saving is simply an aspect of tribalism, institutionalized.

Comment Re:Not for Mac OS either (Score 1) 47

An interesting proposal. I was not aware that the technology required to build and operate moonbases was within our reach. The ability to do large-scale construction in space is most definitely a very important goal.

However, a couple of questions:
1) What advantages (and disadvantages) would using the proposed moonbase to build large projects (mainly for deep-space exploration at this project) offer compared to building these projects on Earth?
2) You propose that this moonbase be industrially-oriented. By the time we finish building your putative moonbase, will we have the technology (and the market, for that matter) for companies to begin taking advantage of it such that activities on the moonbase become commercially viable?

It has always intuitively seemed to me that a mission to an asteroid, and then to Mars would be a more readily achievable goal at this point in time. Maybe a moonbase would have come next after that. But it would be interesting if you could show me otherwise.

Comment Re:Not for Mac OS either (Score 1) 47

Look ... I'm not terribly enthusiastic about the way the US is spending its efforts either. And I think part of the reason so much is wrong with our culture (I say "our" because I'm an American) is the complacency that almost naturally follows from perceived superiority of self, in the economic and political domains. My bet is that if Europe was in a similar position, it wouldn't be in too different a situation compared to the US - I really think it's part of human nature. So, while your point is legitimate, I don't think it's endemic to the US, but rather a property of the nation's current and historical societal position.

That said, I really don't think your criticisms of NASA are fair. Sure, we're not doing manned spaceflight at the moment. But that overlooks two points: first, that manned spaceflight is more romantic than scientific (granted, the romantic aspect is not a bad thing by any means, but in terms of knowledge it doesn't exactly give us the most "bang for the buck") and second, that we are temporarily sacrificing ability to orbit around the Earth (interesting, but not exactly visionary) so that we can develop the ability to do deep-space missions. That's a perfectly long-term, visionary goal. And by relegating LEO manned spaceflight to companies, we're making exactly the right long-term decision - space must be commercialized if we are to eventually make it a very familiar part of our lives the way the computer and the automobile have been.

Complain about the details of the implementation - the politics that corrupts and entangles everything - all you want. But I don't think anyone can legitimately argue that the US's current space vision is the wrong thing to do in the long term. In my view, it is important that we continue to work within this framework to further promote space exploration in all of its aspects and to lead the way into the future.

Comment Re:I'm sure the deficit hawks will be right on thi (Score 4, Insightful) 134

Because the JWST yields scientific knowledge that does not have immediate forseeable potential for profit, companies aren't going to be paying for it (other than possibly for PR purposes). As to private charities, it appears to me that most of philanthropies sponsoring science research are aimed towards promotion of causes like human health, renewable energy, etc. - daily, practical concerns. Nothing lofty like the JWST which will help us view the cosmos. Even basic biology research that might have a medical impact 50 years down the road won't get sponsored by charities, because there is way too much uncertainty involved.

That's why government funding is necessary to sponsor basic science research - for those areas of science which are so far down the road in terms of turning a direct potential benefit to humanity, that can either radically change our view of the world and our way of living or simply be an interesting piece of trivia. Most of the time it's somewhere in between, in which even the interesting factoids will provide bits and pieces of the puzzle on our way to the Next Great Invention or Theory (TM).

Comment Re:What's with the glowing? (Score 1) 149

Basically this. Glowing is one of the most easily measurable markers, without the need for any fancy tools or followup experimental procedures other than perhaps your fluorescent microscope (the other would probably be viability, but that kills the organism which you may not actually want). There's a reason green fluorescent protein won the chem Nobel prize a few years back.

Comment Re:I'm a little uneasy about this (Score 3) 149

I don't mean like haha, "I, for one, welcome our new C. elegans overlords" or tagging the story with whatcouldpossiblygowrong. I mean The Stand. Could somebody with a reasonable knowledge of GM organisms please offer some reassurance that this technique couldn't backfire in some disastrous way?

IAABIT (I am a biologist in training) and based on my knowledge, there's honestly nothing to worry about for this, because it is fundamentally a chemical change. You're gaining the ability to use amino acids other than the 20 that naturally exist, but at that low of a level all that you're gaining is more biochemical versatility. You're going to have to go much higher in terms of complexity and organization before you get something that could potentially pose a danger or what not.

It's sort of like changing one of the instructions in the instruction set of your CPU - would you be worried about malware at that point? I wouldn't say so. It's at the much higher levels that you would start to become worried when these fundamental chemical units (or instructions) start getting combined in novel ways that are potentially dangerous that you would really begin to worry about things. A simple categorical change in amino acid may or may not alter the large-scale properties of macromolecules which are responsible for the majority of biological function. This advance will simply give us the ability to have a greater range of freedom on which to conduct genetic engineering by opening up the possibility of using non-natural amino acids (and "natural" just means one of the 20 amino acids who happen to have been adopted for use by the first biological life forms) - it doesn't really say what the end phenotype will be because that depends on the way the amino acid is used.

Hope that made sense.

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