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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Creationists list the top ten stories of 2016

Intelligent Design Creationists are still trying to promote their views. They consistently claim to have positive evidence of intelligent design and they consistently complain whenever we point out what they actually do; they attack evolution/science. Their main talking point relies on the fallacy known as "false dichotomy." They assume that by casting doubt on evolution/science they lend support to their religious viewpoint.

Each year, the IDiots on Evolution News & Views (sic) publish their top ten stories. The series is linked to a fund-raising campaign so it's safe to assume they think these stories advance their cause. Let's see how many of the top stories promote intelligent design and how many are just criticisms of evolution/science. That should be revealing ...

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Is the high frequency of blood type O in native Americans due to random genetic drift?

The frequency of blood type O is very high in some populations of native Americans. In many North American tribes, for example, the frequency is over 90% and often approaches 100%. A majority of individuals in those populations have blood type O (homozygous for the O allele). [see Theme: ABO Blood Types]

Since there's no solid evidence that blood types are adaptive,1 the standard explanation is random genetic drift.

Jerry Coyne explains it in Why Evolution Is True.
One example of evolution by drift may be the unusual frequencies of blood types (as in the ABO system) in the Old Order Amish and Dunker religious communities in America. These are small, isolated, religious groups whose members intermarry—just the right circumstances for rapid evolution by genetic drift.

Accidents of sampling can also happen when a population is founded by just a few immigrants, as occurs when individuals colonize an island or a new area. The almost complete absence of genes producing the B blood type in Native American populations, for example, may reflect the loss of this gene in a small population of humans that colonized North America from Asia around twelve thousand years ago.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Nature opposes misinformation (pot, kettle, black)

The lead editorial in last week's issue of Nature (Dec. 8, 2016) urges us to Take the time and effort to correct misinformation. The author (Phil Williamson) is a scientist whose major research interest is climate change and the issue he's addressing is climate change denial. That's a clear example of misinformation but there are other, more subtle, examples that also need attention. I like what he says in the opening paragraphs,

Most researchers who have tried to engage online with ill-informed journalists or pseudoscientists will be familiar with Brandolini’s law (also known as the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle): the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it. Is it really worth taking the time and effort to challenge, correct and clarify articles that claim to be about science but in most cases seem to represent a political ideology?

I think it is. Challenging falsehoods and misrepresentation may not seem to have any immediate effect, but someone, somewhere, will hear or read our response. The target is not the peddler of nonsense, but those readers who have an open mind on scientific problems. A lie may be able to travel around the world before the truth has its shoes on, but an unchallenged untruth will never stop.
I've had a bit of experience trying to engage journalists who appear to be ill-informed. I've had little success in convincing them that their reporting leaves a lot to be desired.

I agree with Phil Williamson that challenging falsehoods and misrepresentation is absolutely necessary even if it has no immediate effect. Recently I posted a piece on the misrepresentations of the ENCODE results in 2007 and pointed a finger at Nature and their editors [The ENCODE publicity campaign of 2007]. They are responsible because they did not ensure that the main paper (Birney et al., 2007) was subjected to appropriate peer review. They are responsible because they promoted misrepresentations in their News article and they are responsible because they published a rather silly News & Views article that did little to correct the misrepresentations.

That was nine years ago. Nature never admitted they were partly to blame for misrepresenting the function of the human genome.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The ENCODE publicity campaign of 2007

ENCODE1 published the results of a pilot project in 2007 (Birney et al., 2007). They looked at 1% (30Mb) of the genome with a view to establishing their techniques and dealing with large amounts of data from many different groups. The goal was to "provide a more biologically informative representation of the human genome by using high-throughput methods to identify and catalogue the functional elements encoded."

The most striking result of this preliminary study was the confirmation of pervasive transcription. Here's what the ENCODE Consortium leaders said in the abstract,
Together, our results advance the collective knowledge about human genome function in several major areas. First, our studies provide convincing evidence that the genome is pervasively transcribed, such that the majority of its bases can be found in primary transcripts, including non-protein-coding transcripts, and those that extensively overlap with one another.
ENCODE concluded that 93% of the genome is transcribed in one tissue or another. There are two possible explanations that account for pervasive transcription.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The proteome complexity myth

A reader pointed me to the ThermoFisher Scientific website. ThermoFisher Scientific is a major supply of scientific equipment and supplies. They created their life sciences wesite to help inform their customers and sell more products. The page I'm interested in is: Overview of Post-Translational Modifications (PTMs). It begins with,

Within the last few decades, scientists have discovered that the human proteome is vastly more complex than the human genome. While it is estimated that the human genome comprises between 20,000 and 25,000 genes (1), the total number of proteins in the human proteome is estimated at over 1 million (2). These estimations demonstrate that single genes encode multiple proteins. Genomic recombination, transcription initiation at alternative promoters, differential transcription termination, and alternative splicing of the transcript are mechanisms that generate different mRNA transcripts from a single gene (3).

The increase in complexity from the level of the genome to the proteome is further facilitated by protein post-translational modifications (PTMs). PTMs are chemical modifications that play a key role in functional proteomics, because they regulate activity, localization and interaction with other cellular molecules such as proteins, nucleic acids, lipids, and cofactors.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Revisiting Michael Behe's challenge and revealing a closed mind

It's been twenty years since Michael Behe published Darwin's Black Box and Intelligent Design Creationists are flagellating themselves over the fact that it had so little impact on creationism. The USA is becoming more secular with each passing year. Religion is on the decline.

In their attempt to deal with their defeat, the main ID blog has been publishing "Behe's Greatest Hits," which is a euphemistic way of saying "Behe's Greatest Failures." The latest one caught my eye. It's Best of Behe: An Open Letter to Professors Kenneth Miller and PZ Myers.

It takes you back more than two years to July 21, 2014. That's when Michael Behe issued his challenge to PZ Myers and Ken Miller. The challenge was based on his book The Edge of Evolution and specifically on the development of chloroquine resistance in Plasmodium falciparum. Behe starts with the assumption that cloroquine resistance is extremely rare—it occurs with a probability of roughly 10-20. He concludes that resistance requires at least two different mutations that must occur simultaneously in an individual suffering from malaria while being treated with chloroquine.

The first assumption is approximately correct. Chloroquine resistance is rare. He was criticized for the second assumption; namely, that the overall probability of chloroquine resistance is just the probability of two mutations occurring simultaneously (e.g. 10-10 × 10-10 = 10-20).

The best countries for atheists

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is a collection of Humanist, atheist, secular and similar organizations from many countries. It publishes the Freedom of Thought Report, which purports to be, "A global report on discrimination against humanists, atheists, and the nonreligious." The group intends to highlight systemic discrimination.

We believe it is important to document discriminatory national laws and state authorities which violate freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression. As well as affecting the overtly nonreligious, such as atheists and Humanists, such systemic discrimination also often affects the religious, in particular minorities and non-conformists, and the unaffiliated (those who hold no particular religion or worldview-level belief).

Systemic, legal discrimination can include such things as established state churches (resulting in religious privilege), religious instruction provided without secular ethical alternative classes in schools, through to severe punishments such as prison for crimes of “insulting” religion, or death merely for expressing your atheism.
There are four categories of systemic discrimination: Constitution and government; Education and children’s rights; Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals; and Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values. For each category there are six possible rankings [see Ratings System]:
Black = Grave Violations
Red = Severe Discrimination
Orange = Systemic Discrimination
Yellow = Mostly Satisfactory
Green = Free and Equal
Gray = No Rating
Here's the result for the entire world.

Canada is ranked as "Systemic Discrimination" in all four categories. The USA gets the best rating (Free and Equal) in two categories: "Education and children’s rights" and "Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values." It gets the second highest rating (Mostly Satisfactory) in: "Constitution and government" and "Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals."

The conclusion is obvious. If you are an atheist you are much better off living in the USA than in Canada!

Hemant Mehta, better known as The Friendly Atheist, published the same figure on his blog a few days ago [New Report Highlights the Worst Countries in the World for Atheist Citizens. Many Canadians responded in the comments. One of them, CanuckAmuck, said,
I am dubious about some of the standards of this report. Not to appear butthurt, but to equate Canada to Russia in terms of "Constitution and the Government" is to say the least, asinine. And to report that "Society and Community" is "graver" for the atheist here than in the U.S. is likewise so.
I agree completely. Read the other comments to see what others think of this report.

Respond in the comments if you think atheists are better off in the USA than in Canada.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Using conservation to determine whether splice variants are functional

We've been having a discussion about function and how to recognize it. This is important when it comes to determining how much junk is in our genome [see Restarting the function wars (The Function Wars Part V)]. There doesn't seem to be any consensus on how to define "function" although there's general agreement on using sequence conservation as a first step. If some sequence under investigation is conserved in other species then that's a good sign that it's under negative selection and has a biological function. What if it's not conserved? Does that rule out function? The correct answer is "no" because one can always come up with explanations/excuses for such an observation. We discussed the example of de novo genes, which, by definition, are not conserved.

Let's look at another example: splice variants. Splice variants are different forms of RNA produced from the same gene. If they are biologically relevant then they will produce different forms of the protein (for protein-coding genes). This is an example of alternative splicing if, and only if, relevance has been proven.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Restarting the function wars (The Function Wars Part V)

The term "function wars" refers to debates over the meaning of the word "function" in biology. It refers specifically to the discussion about junk DNA because junk DNA is defined as DNA that does not have a biological function. The wars were (re-)started when the ENCODE Consortium decided to use a stupid definition of function in order to prove that most of our genome was functional. This prompted a number of papers attempting to create a more meaningful definition.

None of them succeeded, in my opinion, because biology is messy and doesn't lend itself to precise definitions. Look how difficult it is to define a "gene," for example. Or "evolution."

Nevertheless, some progress was made. Dan Graur has recently posted a summary of the two most important definitions of function [What does “function” mean in the context of evolution & what absurd situations may arise by using the wrong definition?]. The two definitions are "selected-effect" and "causal-role" (there are synonyms).

How many proteins in the human proteome?

Humans have about 25,000 genes. About 20,000 of these genes are protein-coding genes.1 That means, of course, that humans make at least 20,000 proteins. Not all of them are different since the number of protein-coding genes includes many duplicated genes and gene families. We would like to know how many different proteins there are in the human proteome.

The latest issue of Science contains an insert with a chart of the human proteome produced by The Human Protein Atlas. Publication was timed to correspond with release of a new version of the Cell Atlas at the American Society of Cell Biology meeting in San Francisco. The Cell Atlas maps the location of about 12,000 proteins in various tissues and organs. Mapping is done primarily by looking at whether or not a gene is transcribed in a given tissue.

A total of 7367 genes (60%) are expressed in all tissues. These "housekeeping" genes correspond to the major metabolic pathways and the gene expression pathway (e.g. RNA polymerase subunits, ribosomal proteins, DNA replication proteins). Most of the remaining genes are tissue-specific or developmentally specific.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Suzan Mazur doesn't like Carl Zimmer

There weren't many science writers are the Royal Society meeting in London (UK) [New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives]. Carl Zimmer was there and so was Suzan Mazur. Carl was there to learn and do some research. Suzan was there to promote herself as the main publicist of the paradigm shifters.

Carl Zimmer wrote a news article about the meeting for Quanta: Scientists Seek to Update Evolution. The subtitle was "Recent discoveries have led some researchers to argue that the modern evolutionary synthesis needs to be amended." It was a pretty fair article and pretty good reporting on what went on at the meeting. I would have been a bit more harsh about the success of the so-called "paradigm shifters" but Carl did a good job of conveying the skepticism exhibited by many at the meeting. [See Kevin Laland's new view of evolution for my take on these "revolutionaries."]

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Kevin Laland's new view of evolution

The recent meeting at the Royal Society in London was organized by The Royal Society (UK) and The British Academy. The theme of the meeting was, "New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives." The main organizers were Denis Noble, Nancy Cartwright, Patrick Bateson, John Dupré, and Kevin Laland. The point of the meeting was to discuss new evolutionary theory.

It's difficult to describe everything that went on at the meeting because so much of it was details about individual research results. These scientific talks were often presented as an alternative to modern ways of thinking about evolution. The general theme was that the Modern Synthesis was out-of-date and needed revision or, perhaps, replacement. There was very little discussion of evolutionary theory and how best to interpret those results. The data was supposed to speak for itself.

The only serious objections came from scientists who claimed the Modern Synthesis had already incorporated the ideas of niche construction, plasticity, epigenetics etc. This message was promoted mainly by Douglas Futuyma and Russell Lande. They weren't very successful.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Learning about modern evolutionary theory: the drift-barrier hypothesis

Many evolutionary biologists are engaged in research that focuses on large organisms that are (presumably) adapting to a local environment. These "field biologists" are mostly concerned with rapid evolutionary changes. Those kind of changes are almost always due to natural selection. Many of these biologists are not interested in molecular evolution and not interested in any process other than natural selection.

Unfortunately, this promotes an adaptationist mentality where all of evolution is viewed through the filter of natural selection. This is the view criticized by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin back in 1978 when they presented the Spandrels paper at a Royal Society meeting in London (UK).
Gould, S. J. and Lewontin, R.C. (1979) The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 205:581-598. [doi: 10.1098/rspb.1979.0086
I believe there was a substantive change in our view of evolution back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That's when the results of evolution at the molecular level were first being published. It lead to the development of Neutral Theory, Nearly-Neutral Theory and a growing appreciation of the importance of random genetic drift. Modern population genetics was able to cope easily with this new view of evolution.