Mendel’s Garden: Frankenpeople!

Welcome to the 29th edition of Mendel’s Garden, the monthly one-stop-shop for the best the blogosphere has on Genetics. I have hosted the Garden a couple times before on my personal blog, but this month we find ourselves on Biofortified. This is a group blog on plant genetics and genetic engineering, to try to sprinkle a little fertilizer on the discussion of the majority of the eukaryotic biomass on this planet – plants! And we’ve got some plant genetics-based blog posts to talk about, but the theme for this edition is FRANKENPEOPLE!

Yes, human genetics has been up in the news lately, and there is no shortage of blog posts discussing it.

We begin with Josh Witten at the Rugbyologist, who discusses the uncanny genetics of the X-Men. Wrestling with mutation rates and variable mutant powers, Josh settles on the weirdness of the claim that the mutant gene is inherited from the father – wait, if it is on the Y-Chromosome, how come there are female mutants? Perhaps the X-gene is not a mutant gene per se, but an epimutant that is the result of a change in paternal gene imprinting?

Changes in gene expression are becoming more and more important these days, as our tools to study them are improving. Eliza Strickland at the 80beats Discover Blog talks about the long-lasting effects of child abuse on the genome. We must learn from the rats and lick our offspring more… no wait, maybe treat them well in our own human fashion to prevent epigenetic changes that could make them depressed down the road!

Speaking of tools improving, the cost of whole-genome sequencing is coming down. FuturePundit Randall Parker wonders whether we will see $100 personal genome sequencing by 2014? I don’t know about you, but I’d rather pay the extra 50 bucks to get both halves of my genome sequenced when I do. Screw this haploid genome stuff – I’m a heterozygote!

Genome sequencing will be very fascinating at least for what it will tell us about our geneology. Erin at The Spittoon describes how mitochondrial DNA was used to confirm the identity of two ‘missing’ Romanovs. Also up at The Spittoon is a discussion of how some tiny changes in a gene, FOXO3A have been associated with longevity. Now those are some SNiPs that I hope I have in my genome!

This edition of the Garden comes on the heels of Barack Obama’s momentous lifting of the embryonic stem cell research ban in the US. So to get ourselves ready for the influx of stem cell research coming our way, Chris Patil primes us with some research on the function of telomerases – we’ll reprogram our cells yet!

The Pope Wears Prada
The Pope Wears Prada

Next, there’s a rising trend in discussion of so-called “Designer Babies,” which isn’t quite the GATTACA-storyline bioethics issue, but touches pretty close to it. Can prospective parents pre-screen embryos for genetic diseases prior to implantation? On one hand, you have the issue of choosing the genetics of your offpsring on a [possibly mistaken] whim, and on the other hand you have the possibility of prevent kids with inborn genetic diseases from being born. Well, Pope Benedict, seen here sporting his “Pagan” ruby slippers, chimed in against the very concept of screening embryos, calling it “Genetic Discrimination.”

As the American Freethought blog astutely points out, apparently genetic discrimination is wrong – except for priests. Genetic discrimination against the human XX karyotype is alive and well in the catholic church.

Finally in our human genetic section, Abbie Smith aka ERV says that a gene called ERV9 beat Jesus to the punch by resurrecting a dead gene long before humans split from our ape cousins. Read ERVs=Jesus: Bringing dead genes back to life.

To make the segue from humans to plants for us we no one else to thank than the FrankenSenator from Arizona, John McCain. Sidestepping email entirely, he’s taken to twittering what he sees as pork-barrel projects that he finds puzzling. That’s a low bar to start with, which is why many are pointing out the strange preponderance of scientific research in his list of “pork.” Well Grace Ibay at Genetics and Health has assembled a short list of his tweets on genetics and science, and reveals that he really doesn’t know what all of it is for.

Here’s the best one:

“$1,427,250 for genetic improvements of switchgrass – I thought switchgrass genes were pretty good already, guess I was wrong.”

Haha, yeah. You are. In case any of you are curious what kinds of genetic improvements are being worked in in switchgrass, I just happen to have a video I produced about switchgrass breeding. Why don’t you cool your mind for a moment on the effort to combine Upland and Lowland prarie grasses?

Does that make you feel like becoming a plant breeder? I hope so, that’s why I’m making them. To view a higher resolution version of this video, or to see the other ones I have produced in this series, visit the UW’s Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics website. I just showcased the newest video on How to Breed Cucurbits here on Biofortified.

I have a couple posts from the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog. Luigi announces the start of a new plant breeding journal. Submit away, it’s also Open Access! And he also put up a post about a fascinating piece of news (which will get attention soon here on Biofortified): The Hawaii legislature is considering banning genetically engineered Hawaiian Taro because it “changes the basic structure” of the Taro plant. Well if that’s actually in the proposed legislation, then what will that do considering that plant breeding changes the structure of Hawaiian Taro? Read Making Breeding Illegal and join [us] in the discussion.

And Jeremy blogged about Darwin’s Birthday, on the subject of Beans and Selection. Check it out, and click through to Darwin Online, too!

Greg Laden also wrote about Chuck for his birthday, and wondered Why didn’t Darwin Discover Mendel’s laws? He also seems to have voted for Al Franken, by the look of his posts on politics. Another FrankenPerson!

Here on Biofortified, we have a few plant-related posts you might be interested in. First, I did some legwork and found out that some anti-GE activists have been promoting some false claims about Obama’s plans in the White House.

Pam Ronald writes about GE crops on the big island of Hawaii following her trip to the same place in Big Island Transgenics. On her own blog, she also posted a time-lapse video of her work with flood-tolerant rice in The Power of Genetics.

Pam’s husband and co-author Raoul Adamchak wrote a guest post about the necessity of allowing university scientists to do research on GE crops. Scroll to the bottom – Monsanto even reads this blog!

And my friend Melinda Markham enlightens us with a guest post on the first successful attempt to engineer a vaccine against tetanus into plants. I think it’s ironic that tobacco can now be used to make people healthier! Read Breeding Tetanus Vaccines into Plants.

Let’s end with something funny, and something pretty. Andrew at the Southern Fried Scientist talks about the need to give genes meaningful names. What’s wrong with Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog? Okay maybe you’ve got a point about “I’m not Dead Yet.” Check out the End of the Cheap Date for a little laugh at crazy Drosophila names and a little realism about genic nomenclature.

Finally, the Myrmecos Blog posts a picture of bees in the shape of DNA that was unfortunately rejected by a journal publisher, but take heart! We don’t care that the picture was the wrong dimensions – you got the DNA coiling the right way so you deserve a little buzz.

Bumblebee DNA
Bumblebee DNA

That’s all for this edition of Mendel’s Garden, thanks everyone for taking the time to read. Do check back here soon, because both Anastasia and I will be attending the Maize Genetics Conference starting tomorrow and we’ll have some deliciously corny stuff for everyone!

And it appears that no one has claimed the next Mendel’s Gardennow’s your chance!

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:

Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.