GMO Trees!

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the American Chestnut– a pretty awesome tree (really!) that once dominated many American forests.  And made it’s way into popular folkore (“chestnuts roasting on an open fire”).  Alas, it pretty much went extinct in the mid 20th century to do a fungal blight.  There’s been a number of breeding efforts (with Asian Chestnuts) that have failed to bring it back.  Well now scientists at SUNY have created a GMO chestnut that is resistant to this fungus but otherwise has pretty much all the same properties of the classic American Chestnut.  Awesome!  I’m ready for some in NC.   This being a GMO, of course, things aren’t that simple.  I learned about this via Quirks and Quarks which eventually led me to this terrific Scientific American article that looks at the history of the the chestnut as well as the modern science.

Humans are both responsible for the demise of America’s chestnut forests and the only species on the planet that can do something about it. Since the 1980s several generations of Leopold’s colleagues at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (S.U.N.Y.–ESF) have toiled to restore the American chestnut to its native habitat. One semisuccessful strategy has been mating American chestnut with blight-resistant but much smaller Chinese chestnut, selectively breeding the hybrids to achieve a tree that is as genetically and physically similar to an American chestnut as possible, yet still resilient. Genetic engineering has offered another even more successful route to restoration. By taking genes from wheat, Asian chestnuts, grapes, peppers and other plants and inserting them into American chestnut trees, William Powell of S.U.N.Y.–ESF and scores of collaborators have created hundreds of transgenic trees that are almost 100 percent genetically identical wild American chestnut yet immune to C. parasitica. The scientists hope to get federal approval to begin planting these trees in the forest within the next five years (See “The American Chestnut’s Genetic Rebirth” in the March 2014 issue ofScientific American)…

If S.U.N.Y.–ESF’s Powell and his colleagues succeed in planting young transgenic blight-resistant chestnuts in the wild, chances are good that the trees will successfully expand their domain—relatively quickly in some areas; slowly but surely in others. Over the decades this new generation of American chestnuts will change the forest from floor to canopy: Their uppermost branches will bring shade to areas that have too little; their quickly decomposing leaves will carpet the soil and drift into streams and standing water, staining the water with nutrients; their trunks will be home to billions of insects and mammals, their branches the foundations of nests; and, one day, when the trees are mature enough, they will drop scores of chestnuts for the first time in more than a century.

This Ars Technica article looks at the policy/politics of the matter:

But there’s still the matter of public approval. One place these trees might be planted is on public parkland—the areas of protected forest that preserve the habitats where it once thrived contain many state parks and two national ones. But the mission of these parks is generally to preserve the natural ecosystem, and it’s safe to assume that some people will object to a transgenic plant being introduced to a natural ecosystem.

The other place the trees are likely to go is private properties. The research is funded in part by The American Chestnut Foundation, which is enthused about returning the species to the wild. Presumably, some of its members will be just as enthused about putting the trees in their yards. Whether their neighbors will be equally enthused is debatable.

So far, the debate within the US about the role of genetically modified organisms has been relatively muted compared to that in Europe. And, fortunately, the subject has not become politically polarized; concern about the risks posed by the technology are similar across the political spectrum. But that data also makes it clear that a lot of people do perceive a risk, despite decades of study and use that haven’t revealed any problems.

The use of GMO crops is likely to continue to expand—a recent analysis of global data suggests that GMO crops raise yields, lower pesticide use, and increase farmers’ income. But for most citizens, their use as crops is an abstraction, something that happens far away. It may be that the transgenic chestnut will be the first time many people are faced with seeing a GMO plant up close—and have to decide if they want one in their backyard.

As for that Chestnut tree in the backyard?  Sounds awesome– sign me up.

Cancer is inescapable

In the big picture, it is probably better to die from cancer than most other causes.  Of course, there are the truly heartbreaking stories of people dying all too young from cancer, but for the most part dying of cancer means you have lived a pretty long life and did not die from many diseases or illnesses that tend to kill people at younger ages.  I really liked this NYT piece on the inevitability of cancer and what it really means when more people die from cancer:

Half a century ago, the story goes, a person was far more likely to die from heart disease. Now cancer is on the verge of overtaking it as the No. 1 cause of death.

Troubling as this sounds, the comparison is unfair. Cancer is, by far, the harder problem — a condition deeply ingrained in the nature of evolution and multicellular life. Given that obstacle, cancer researchers are fighting and even winning smaller battles: reducing the death toll from childhood cancers and preventing — and sometimes curing — cancers that strike people in their prime. But when it comes to diseases of the elderly, there can be no decisive victory. This is, in the end, a zero-sum game. [emphasis mine]…

Though not exactly consoling, the fact that we have reached this standoff is a kind of success. A century ago average life expectancy at birth was in the low to mid-50s. Now it is almost 79, and if you make it to 65 you’re likely to live into your mid-80s. The median age of cancer death is 72. We live long enough for it to get us…

I especially liked this part that explains how cancer is essentially basic to multi-cellular life:

It is not so much a disease as a phenomenon, the result of a basic evolutionary compromise. As a body lives and grows, its cells are constantly dividing, copying their DNA — this vast genetic library — and bequeathing it to the daughter cells. They in turn pass it to their own progeny: copies of copies of copies. Along the way, errors inevitably occur. Some are caused by carcinogens but most are random misprints.

Over the eons, cells have developed complex mechanisms that identify and correct many of the glitches. But the process is not perfect, nor can it ever be. Mutations are the engine of evolution. Without them we never would have evolved. The trade-off is that every so often a certain combination will give an individual cell too much power. It begins to evolve independently of the rest of the body. Like a new species thriving in an ecosystem, it grows into a cancerous tumor. For that there can be no easy fix.

These microscopic rebellions have been happening for at least half a billion years, since the advent of complex multicellular life — collectives of cells that must work together, holding back, as best each can, the natural tendency to proliferate. Those that do not — the cancer cells — are doing, in a Darwinian sense, what they are supposed to do: mutating, evolving and increasing in fitness compared with their neighbors, the better behaved cells of the body. And these are left at a competitive disadvantage, shackled by a compulsion to obey the rules…

As people age their cells amass more potentially cancerous mutations. Given a long enough life, cancer will eventually kill you — unless you die first of something else. That would be true even in a world free from carcinogens and equipped with the most powerful medical technology.

So, what we can do– and are doing– is work to prevent/cure the cancers that strike people in their prime and find a way to alleviate the suffering from those stricken with cancer in their advanced years.  But as far as getting rid of cancer– we’re pretty much stuck with it.

Photo of the day

From In Focus photos of the week:

A foal, right, walks on the land next to a mare as fog covers the landscape during a foggy autumn sunrise in Ezquiroz, near Pamplona, northern Spain, on November 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

The politics of immigration

It’s hard to know exactly how the politics of immigration will play out over the next couple years, but I’ve read three smart (and independent of each other, I think) takes that all make essentially the same argument– the extreme right-wing xenophobia Obama’s actions will unleash among Republicans will politically benefit Democrats.  It remains to be seen, of course, but this strikes me as a fairly likely scenario.  Drum:

Ah yes, Steve King of Iowa. The odds of shutting him up are about zero, and with primary season approaching he’s going to become the de facto leader of the anti-immigration forces. In the same way that Republican candidates all have to kiss Sheldon Adelson’s ring and swear eternal loyalty to Israel if they want access to his billions, they’re going to have to kiss King’s ring and swear eternal hostility to any kind of immigration from south of the border—and they’re going to compete wildly to express this in the most colorful ways possible. And that’s a big problem. Expressing loyalty to Israel doesn’t really have much downside, but effectively denouncing the entire Hispanic population of the United States is going to steadily destroy any hopes Republicans have of ever appealing to this fast-growing voting bloc.

And that’s not all. Republican leaders are not only fearful of next year’s primaries branding the GOP forever as a bunch of xenophobic maniacs, they’re afraid it’s going to wipe out any chance they have over the next two years of demonstrating to voters that they’re a party of adults.

And Chait:

And here is where Obama’s announcement will leave its deepest imprint. The emotional momentum in the Republican Party now falls to its most furious, deranged voices. Michele Bachmann has denounced what she calls “millions of unskilled, illiterate, foreign nationals coming into the United States who can’t speak the English language.” Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama has even presented the most sympathetic slice of the immigrant community — the ones serving in the military — as a source of insidious competition and even treason. (“I don’t want American citizens having to compete with illegal immigrants for jobs in our military … These individuals have to be absolutely 100 percent loyal and trustworthy.” Steve King, a regular font of nativist outbursts, is setting himself up as a power broker in Iowa, which will command center stage in the GOP primary for months and months on end.

And Noam Scheiber (who takes a broader look– well worth reading– on how conservatives focus on procedure to try and obscure their unpopular policy aims):

And yet, try as they might to stick to the script, there’s something about dark-skinned foreigners that sends the conservative id into overdrive. Most famously, there’s Iowa Congressman Steve King’s observation last year that for every child brought into the country illegally “who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

While King tends to be especially vivid in his lunacy, he’s no outlier. Just yesterday departing Congresswoman Michele Bachmann opined that “the social cost [of Obama’s order] will be profound on the U.S. taxpayermillions of unskilled, illiterate, foreign nationals coming into the United States who can’t speak the English language.” (Not to worry, GOP leadershipKing and Bachmann are graciously slinking off stage. They’retraveling to the Mexican border today to inspect the problem first-hand.)

The problem with drawing these crazy relatives down from the attic isn’t just that it exposes the GOP’s soothing proceduralism as a sham when it comes to immigration reform. It’s that it exposes the GOP’s proceduralism as a sham more broadly. It simply defies logic to believe that Mexicans (and maybe Muslims, the other minority group Bachmann et al feel comfortable hounding) are the only group of non-white or non-affluent Americans the GOP’s conservative wing disdains. And the longer the immigration debate goes on, the more damage will be done to that fiction.

With all this, it’s hard to see how cooler heads are going to prevail in the GOP.  And, of course, it’s not just Hispanics who get turned off by the rhetoric of the crazy, the more this becomes the GOP “brand” the more it can hurt the party among all voters.  Definitely something to watch for 2016.

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