Monday, March 31, 2008

Good News for Mrs. Frisby

Japanese scientists have taught degus - rat-like rodents - to use a rake to obtain food.


Technovelgy points out the similarity of the tool-using degus to the intelligent rodent-like creatures in H. Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy, and the Watchmakers in The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

The first fictional reference that sprang to my mind was Robert O'Brien's Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, one of my childhood favorites. In that story, rats escape from the National Institute of Mental Health, where they were part of an intelligence-enhancing experiment. They end up on a farm where the mouse Mrs. Frisby lives. The rats use their superior intelligence and ability to use tools - not just raking, but building motors and the like - to help move Mrs. Frisby and her sick son to a new home before their old one is destroyed. The NIMH rats are both smart and dexterous. I wonder if the degus can top that?



My previous post on the biology in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

Download Little Fuzzy for free from Project Gutenberg.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

In Search of the Lost World

Modern Mechanix has a copy of a September 1929 article about Dr. S. H. Williams' exploration of the jungles of British Guiana looking for dinosaurs.
It was only a few years ago that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book of the same name and subject was hailed as a highly imaginative piece of work, but far afield from legitimate science. But despite this fact, Dr. Williams, himself a conservative scientist, decided that there must be some measure of truth in the native legends he had heard so frequently during previous trips in the general region. So with only a couple of incomplete maps and a compass to guide him, besides a native black, unfamiliar with the interior, to carry his provisions, the explorer set out from Georgetown on the coast of British Guiana, on a perilous journey the like of which probably has never been attempted before—so far, at least, as that thickly forested territory is concerned.

Strictly speaking, Dr. Williams failed in his quest, for he did not actually set foot in the “Lost World”. But he is convinced that he came within only about 15 miles of its exterior—near enough to catch a glimpse of it from the top of a high hill—and in all events considerably nearer than any other white man had ever been. Whereupon, stricken with malaria, almost entirely out of food, and covered from head to foot with thousands of itch-provoking insects, he was forced to turn back.
It sounds like Dr. Williams perhaps took his SF reading a bit too seriously.

The casual racism of the article is a bit shocking, but I found this passage amusing in its seeming cluelessness:
“Since I do not know the language of the yellow Indians, nor did my faithful black, since he was from the coastal district—you may well ask, how did I make myself known without unduly antagonizing them? My answer is that there is a universal language of trinkets that practically every primitive race, if approached with reasonable gentleness, is able to understand. With me I had taken care to bring sundry bright-colored beads and bits of calico, and by their careful use was able to persuade a good many of the Indians to transport myself and my black via the canoe method to otherwise inaccessible places.
I like to imagine the "yellow Indians" taking the trinkets and leading Williams in circles through the jungle for a few weeks. I suspect that spotting the possible "Lost World" plateau in the distance may have made him happier than if he had explored it and found it lacked prehistoric critters.
Illustration from the article: The caption reads "Fantastic creatures such as these, which trod the earth millions of years ago, are credited by local legend with inhabiting the "Los World" plateau of British Guiana, made famous by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his book of he same name. At the left is a photo of the plateau taken by Dr. Williams just before he was forced to turn back within sight of his goal.

Read The Lost World for free at Project Gutenburg.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

It was reported today that Arthur C. Clarke has died at the age of 90. Clarke wrote many science fiction classics: Childhood's End, Against the Fall of Night, The Fountains of Paradise, Rendezvous with Rama, and, perhaps the story best known even to non-science fiction fans, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Unlike Clarke's other novels, 2001 was written with the specific purpose of being adapted into a screenplay, starting from his short story, "The Sentinel". Director Stanley Kubrick had significant input into the story, but the novel was not completed before the screenplay, and differs in some details from the movie version. Clarke's account of collaboration was published in 1972 as The Lost Worlds of 2001. He describes the creative process that lead to the scene with the monolith teaching pre-human hominids how to use tools, which was inspired in part by the ideas of anthropologist (and screenwriter) Robert Ardrey. He didn't stop there, though, continuing to consult with both Kubrick and other anthropologists. From Clarke's diary:
October 2. Finished reading Robert Ardery's African Genesis. Came across a striking paragraph which might even provide a title for the movie: "Why did not the human line become extinct in the depths of the Pliocene? . . . we know that but for a gift from the stars, but for the accidental collision of ray and gene, intelligence would have perished on some forgotten African field" True, Ardrey is talking about cosmic-ray mutations, but the phrase "A gift from the stars" is strikingly applicable to our present plot line.
[snip]
November 20. Went to Natural History Museum to see Dr. Harry Shapiro, head of Anthropology, who took a poor view of Ardrey. Then had a session with Stan, arguing about early man's vegetarian versus carnivorous tendencies. Stan wants our visitors to turn Man into a carnivore; I argued that he always was. Back at the Chlesea, phoned Ike Asimov to discuss the biochemistry of turning vegetarians into carnivores.

November 21. Read Leakey's Adam's Ancestors*. Getting rather desperate now, but after six hours' discussion Stan had a rather amusing idea. Our E.T.'s arrive on Earth and teach commando tactics to our pacifistic ancestors so that they can survive and flourish. We had an entertaining time knocking this one around, but I don't think it's viable.
Ultimately, they went with tool use. Originally, the story had an alien named Clindar who came, observed that Earth's hominids had the potential for intelligence, and decided they were worth teaching. That chapter was cut, but was resurrected in The Lost Worlds of 2001:
It was a wonder they had survived, and their future did not look promising. [. . .] But Clindar, with the experience of many worlds behind him, knew that appearances could be deceptive. These unprepossessing near-apes had one great advantage over all he other creatures of their planet. They were still unspecialized; they had not yet become trapped in any evolutionary cul-de-sac. Almost every animal could beat them in some respect - in strength, or speed, or hearing or natural armament. There was no single skill in which the hominids excelled, but they could do everything after a fashion. Where the other animals had become virtuosos, they had specialized in a universal mediocrity - and therein, a million years hence, might lie their salvation. Having failed to adapt themselves to their environment, they might yet one day change it to suit their own desires.
Here's the dawning of tool use as depicted in the movie version of 2001:




The use of tools allowed our distant ancestors to more reliably obtain food and defend themselves, which in turn likely led to an increase in brain size and increased intelligence**. Several million years later, here we are. Clarke makes clear in 2001 that our current state is not the end of evolution. Astronaut David Bowman has an encounter with another monolith, which molds his mind anew. Bowman becomes the Star-Child, returning briefly to Earth to clear the skies of orbiting nuclear weapons before he explores the universe. I like to think that's the direction evolution will take the human race.

R.I.P Arthur C. Clarke

* There's an interesting article at Talk Origins about the inaccuracies in Leakey's human ancestral tree as published in Adam's Ancestors in 1934. The Smithsonian has a more up to date version.

** See, for example Flinn MV, Geary DC, and Ward CV. "Ecological dominance, social competition, and coalitionary arms races: Why humans evolved extraordinary intelligence." Evolution and Human Behavior 26: 10-46 (2005) (pdf)

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Organlegging and REPO! The Genetic Opera

Imagine the horror of a future in which organs are for sale - and can be repossessed for non-payment. Now imagine that tale told with rock music, singing and dancing. That would give you REPO! The Genetic Opera, touted as "Rocky Horror meets Blade Runner", which is coming soon to the big screen. The movie takes place in the near future where a biotech company, GeneCo, finances organ transplants. That is high risk in more ways than one:
"They’re not just buying them for health reasons. In this future it’s kind of like the next phase of plastic surgery. Upgrading your body parts, upgrading your internal organs has become a fashion statement. It’s legal for the organ financing companies to repossess your organs if you don’t make your payments on time. Our story is about one of these organ Repo Men, and his 17-year-old daughter [Shilo], who doesn’t know what her dad [Nathan] does for a living. It’s kind of her coming-of-age story discussing about the world outside and, of course, daddy’s dark secrets, and all put to music."


There have been many science fictional futures where human organs are an expensive commodity: Robert Silverberg's short story "Caught in the Organ Draft", the organleggers in Larry Niven's Known Space universe*, and the sale of organs by those desperate for money in Frederick Pohl's Gateway, all spring to mind. Ben Zimmer points out in the Oxford University Press blog that some people have started to use the term "organlegger" to describe real trafficking of human organs, so regular organ trading really that unlikely a future.

But what about repossession? A year ago a patient at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center became the first known recipient of a heart that had been transplanted before. It had not spent very long in the first recipients body, however, because that patient died on the operating table. The second transplantation was performed six days later. Even more impressively, a liver graft was retransplanted thirteen years after transfer to the original recipient. So, if the organ is still healthy, why not use it again? There are a number of technical reasons why reuse of a healthy organ might fail:
The heart already has been exposed to the tissue and antibodies of two people, which increases rejection risk and requires extra vigilance on the part of cardiologists and specialists in immunology. Also, because the heart’s vessels already have been grafted once, a second procedure is more complex and potentially time-intensive for surgeons. In addition, the heart muscle itself may be stressed from lack of oxygen and the inherent trauma of two operations.
I suspect we'll be eventually be able to overcome those issues. I've seen some roughly used repossessed cars, though, and I'm not sure I'd want a kidney in the same beat-up condition.

REPO! The Genetic Opera isn't due to be released until April 25, but there was a sneak peek at the SXSW festival in Austin. Ain't it Cool News has two wildly different reviews: one guy loved it, is still humming the tunes and thinks it will be a new cult classic. A second viewer thought it was horrible, and noted that 20 people walked out of the screening. I'm thinking that a gory movie with bad acting (Paris Hilton has a major role), bad singing and a cheesy plot might just be the recipe for packed midnight screenings on college campuses around the country.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

How to Repopulate a World Without Men?

As I left, Lydia was explaining the difference between parthenogenesis (which is so easy that anyone can practice it) and what we do, which is the merging of ova. That is why Katy's baby looks like me.
~ Joanna Russ "When It Changed"
What would happen to the human race if the male half of the population vanished - taken by a Y chromosome-specific plague, culled by evil aliens, or killed in a tragic accident (not likely on Earth, but possible on a less populous colony world)? Would the remaining women simply let Homo sapiens die out? Of course not! We would use our ingenuity and mad biology skillz to make sure he human race survived. It would take a few years, though, because the technology isn't quite ready for large-scale single-sex reproduction yet.

The all-female world has been a feature in science fiction stories from Poul Anderson's 1959 novel Virgin Planet to the Brian Vaughan and Pia Guerra's recently concluded comic book series, Y: The Last Man. Most of the stories are vague on how reproduction takes place, but usually it's one of two methods: parthenogenesis or cloning. In the past, these methods were equally speculative. Today, however, recent advances in reproductive technologies are taking them from the realm of science fiction into the real world.

Cloning is the reproductive method of choice for many maleless worlds, in addition to making genetically-identical armies or labor forces. Human clones have been generated, but none have been allowed to develop beyond the stage that they could be implanted in a uterus. Ethical concerns make it unlikely that any adult human clones will be produced in the near future. Successful cloning of a number of non-human mammals - including sheep, cows, mice and cats - makes it likely that cloning humans would be technically feasible. There are problems with clones, though, including abnormal gene expression and possibly early aging. Even if those issues are overcome, a population maintained by cloning would lack the biological advantages of sexual reproduction.

So, what about parthenogenesis? In nature, parthenogenesis or development from an unfertilized egg, is rare in vertebrates other than a few species of lizards. Attempts at artificial parthenogenesis in mammals have been almost completely unsuccessful. This is thought to be due to the necessity of genomic imprinting, which causes genes inherited from the mother and father to be expressed differently in the developing fetus. In 2004, a lab in Japan created a single fatherless mutant mouse that lived to adulthood (Kono et al., Nature 428:860-4 (2004)). As a contemporary article notes, the process they used is too inefficient to be used for human reproduction.
Whilst the idea of extending this sort of experimental technique to humans is likely to be eagerly seized upon by some (suggesting, for instance, that it might be used by two homosexual women to create a child genetically related to both of them), in reality such applications would not be feasible. Of 457 mouse embryos created, only one has survived to adulthood, showing that imprinting is not easily bypassed; the laborious procedure is far too unsafe to use for humans and would also be widely considered unethical.
I suspect that further experimentation could eventually overcome the technical obstacles and both improve the success rate, and get parthenogenesis working in mammals besides mice.

The other advantage, as the quote hints, is that artificially-induced mammalian parthenogenesis uses two eggs, allowing the variation of sexual reproduction. Novels that include that are Joanna Russ's The Female Man (1975), which is set on the same world of Whileaway as "When it Changed", Leona Gom's The Y Chromosome (1990), and Nicola Griffith's Ammonite (1994).


Recent work from the laboratory of Karim Nayernia at the University of Newcastle suggests a slightly different approach. He claims that his lab has generated primitive sperm cells from female embryonic stem cells, with the ultimate goal the generation of functioning sperm cells from female bone marrow. His work is in the preliminary stages - the latest results were announced to the press without any accompanying publication - and other scientists are skeptical.

However, Dr Robin Lovell-Badge, a stem cell and sex determination expert at the National Institute for Medical Research, Mill Hill, London, doubts it will work: “The presence of two X chromosomes is incompatible with this. Moreover they need genes from the Y chromosome to go through meiosis. So they are at least double-damned.”

I think that research like this - in the realm of the scientifically almost-but-not-quite-impossible - could be the interesting basis of a science fiction story.

More reading:
Image: "Image depicting in vitro fertilization of an egg in a process similar to the one researchers used to fertilize mouse embryos with the sperm-like cells."

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Janet Kagan (1946-2008)

Science fiction writer Janet Kagan died yesterday of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), after a long illness. Her 1991 novel, Mirabile, is made up of a collection of short stories about the human settlement of the planet Mirabile. The settlers have seeded the planet with extensively genetically engineered versions of Earth plants and animals, with some organisms containing genomes of entirely unrelated species. As the protagonist geneticist Mama Jason explains it:
You see, when they shipped us off to colonize Mirabile, they were into redundancy. We got cold-storage banks of every conceivable species (I use the "we" loosely; I'm third-generation Mirabilan myself.) But on top of that we also got the redundancy built right into the gene helices of all the stored species. Some bright-eyed geneticist back on Earth had apparently gotten that idea just before the expedition set off: genes within genes, helices tucked away inside other helices.

It was a good idea in theory. If we lost a species (and lost the ability to build it ourselves), sooner or later it would pop up spontaneously - all it needed was the right environmental conditions. Given the right EC, every hundredth turtle would lay an alligator egg.
Of course, there were unintended consequences:
In practice, it was a rotten idea. We'll never lack for alligators, not on Mirabile. They didn't tell us how to turn off those hidden helices, or if they did, the technique was only described in that part of ship's files we'd lost. So we Jasons have a running battle with cattle that are giving birth to reindeer and daffodils seeding iris (or worse - cockroaches).

Meanwhile, in the manner of all genes, the hidden genes mixed. While the turtle genes were reproducing turtles, the alligator genes tucked in with the turtle genes were mixing with god-knows-what. So given the right EC, we got chimera - familiarly known as Dragon's Teeth.
Yes, the biology is extremely improbable - it's hard to imagine an entire vertebrate genome silently implanted in the genome of another (implanted microbial genomes are possible, of course) - but it does raise interesting issues about genetics, embryonic development, and the environment. In fact, the HHMI BioInteractive site has several study questions based on the biology of Mirabile (scroll to the bottom of the page), which I think could be the basis of an interesting student discussion of those topics.

I've only read the story that the quote above came from, "Kangaroo Rex", in an anthology, because, unfortunately, Mirabile is now out of print. Kagan's other works are available, however including her novel Hellspark (which has interesting aliens) and the Stark Trek tie-in Uhura's Song . On her web site you can read her short stories "Love Our Lockwood" (about an alternative history election) and "Standing in the Spirit" (a Christmas story).

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