And Baby Makes Three

The UK looks like it will be the first country to allow babies with the genetic material of three parents, with our MPs voting for the bill on Tuesday.

Now in the UK we also have a House of Lords, who also must approve the bill at a later date, and there’s no guarantee they will, but given the large majority of parliament members (382 to 182) it’s likely they will. It also has to be approved by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, a UK governmental organisation.

On Tuesday morning I was listening to Morning Call on Radio Scotland. It’s a fairly simple show, where people call in to give their opinions on any given subject. That, combined with the online reaction today, has had me and my colleagues thumping our foreheads against the desks repeatedly.

Buzzfeed has a great “Six Things You Should Know...” list that I won’t repeat here, but there are a few things we have to discuss …

 

Three Parent Babies is a Bit of a Stretch

Yes, this is a classic case of a catchy headline. The mitochondria, which you probably remember from high school biology, is essentially the battery of a cell. Long, long ago in our evolutionary past, back when we were simple collections of cells, mitochondria were simple single cell organisms capable of doing things our little cells weren’t. Namely powering things. So they were captured and made a part of larger cellular organism that was us. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But it’s because of this that mitochondria have slightly interesting and unique DNA, a separate part of our genome that codes for our mitochondria. Some organisms have managed to get rid of all of the mitochondrial DNA, and others have got weird mutations in there, we’ll come back to that later.

The important thing to note is that ‘three parent baby’ simply takes the mitochondrial DNA from one genome, and the rest of the DNA in the traditional method (for a given definition of ‘traditional’, in a test tube, under the stars, wearing leather, wearing lace . . . ) comes from the two parents.

 

A Gateway To Eugenics

One of the strangest comments I’ve heard in relation to this news is that it means we’re a step closer to eugenics. This is, in some ways, deeply insulting to the families of those who are suffering from mitochondrial diseases. To want to be free of disease does not equate to eugenics.

In humans, mitochondria are inherited directly from the mother. You’ve heard of Mitochondrial Eve? The reason we have her is because our mitochondrial DNA doesn’t get recombined and altered in the same way as the rest of our genome. Like the Y chromosome, it is an excellent way of doing forensic genetics. Both of them remain greatly unchanged throughout our evolutionary history, and we can track back to a conceptual Mitochondrial Eve and Y Chromosome Adam. However, I’ll point out that these aren’t real people. They’re simply the earliest ancestor we’re all related to – which changes as our population changes over time.

But it’s this phenomenon, the conservation of this DNA, that allows us to swap them out in this fashion. The DNA inside the mitochondria is so useless to the rest of the body they can be exchanged very easily. So you see, we’re still many, many years and innovations away from selecting the genes we want and engineering our babies. This procedure is feasible, and safe, because mitochondrial DNA is so protected, and usually inconsequential in a genome.

 

Why Do We Need It?

Because mitochondrial diseases are horrific things. The mitochondrial DNA is special, yes, separate from the rest of the DNA, yes. But it also mutates, as all DNA does, and it doesn’t have much of a way of repairing itself or realising that its damaging its body. Symptoms include Multiple Sclerosis style diseases, loss of eyesight, loss of hearing, dementia, neurological problems, an inability to exercise, diabetes, poor growth, heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders . . . and each one of these things are a SYMPTOM of the disease, not the disease itself.

We can eradicate this disease, easily, while maintaining a person’s right to reproduce. If you fear that because you’ve seen one too many B movies about Frankenstein . . . you just show me how much work I have to do.

 

 

Finally I have to say something about the “Science has gone too far” style comments, and “humans have evolved to their current state, we shouldn’t meddle”. In so many cases, comics can communicate more about science than any of my blogs. To those people I say . . .

Thag no! You go too far! 

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Do You Want to See a Magic Trick?

Do you want to see a magic trick?

As part of our Animal Welfare Indicators project I’m creating an online learning object which describes an experiment testing whether or not goats know an object is there when they can’t see it.

Now don’t go doubting the intelligence of goats just yet, this question is pretty multifaceted. It begins with human babies and the game of Peekaboo. If you’ve ever entertained a small baby, you might have fallen back on hiding behind your hands and enjoying the delighted giggles of this apparent magic trick.

There is some debate in the scientific community over whether babies are really fooled by this trick, or whether they don’t have an understanding of object permanence until they’re about two years old.

At some point babies develop the ability to understand that objects still exist even when they’re out of sight. Take a baby’s favourite toy and hide it behind a screen, the baby will look behind the screen. The fact that an object must exist outside of our perception of it can lead to some fun set ups. Check out this video to watch a magician performing a simple magic trick in front of some dogs. The dogs, fully expecting the object to reappear where it logically should, clearly act confused and start searching other logical places (such as beneath the hands, behind them, etc.)

The magic act Penn and Teller explain the anatomy of a trick that uses sleight of hand in this, slightly grainy video. The steps they include are: Palm – Switch – Ditch – Steal – Load – Simulation – Misdirection.

But none of these steps work if you can’t understand that an object should exist where you don’t know.

A psychologist named Piaget came up with a little experiment to test whether object permanance has developed in children – you can try it yourself with the nearest available baby or pet (please ask permission of the bill payer).

For this set up you will need an object and for an animal it will need to be something they’ll be motivated to look for. I suggest a treat (but preferably one which doesn’t smell too strongly).

Show your subject the object and then place it inside a cup or other container (or behind a makeshift screen, like a half open DVD case). Now for the magic trick. Place this container or screen, with the treat still hidden within, behind another screen (such as an open book propped up on the floor).

Watch what happens next. The theory goes that if your baby or pet understands that objects exist even when they cannot be observed, it will look for the treat behind the open book. This leap of logic means the subject must understand the object still exists when its inside the first container, and that when the first container is hidden, the hidden object persists even then.

Or you could hire a magician and get them to confuse the hell out of your pets and babies. Because that’s hilarious.

 

The Black Dog

In the last twelve months one of my little sisters has struggled with depression. I think she’s coping remarkably well with it and I’m really very proud of her. Recently she got some bad news and in one of my weekly ‘putting the world to rights’ calls with my mother, I said that if she looked like this might set her back we should encourage her to get a cat.

Mum laughed and agreed, and then the next day phoned me frantically to exclaim: you should blog about that!

So here is the blog about pets and depression!

I have good reason to suspect a pet would help my sister, as well as other people with certain kinds of depression. And it’s not just because of this Eddie Izzard sketch.

There are two many theories regarding why we keep pets, and I’ve spoken about them before. They boil down to this: either pets take advantage of us, or pets give us some advantage in life. Much of what I’m going to talk about today falls under this second theory, but remember – it could just be a way our little social parasites have evolved to keep us sweet.

Pets Matter to People

One of the most interesting (and sadly unpublished) pieces of research I’ve ever done was investigating how online pet obituaries represent owners feelings about a pet passing away. Pets are very dear to their owners. People often say they love their pet ‘like a child’.

Interestingly, when people have been asked to rate how the loss of a pet makes them feel, they’ll say it’s analogous to losing touch with an adult child (Gage & Holcomb, 1991). Therefore the loss of a pet is a stressful event – just what I want for my blue sister, right? The inevitable loss of an animal.

What I find really interesting about that comparison is that it talks about children, but doesn’t directly compare the loss of a pet to the loss of a child. Part of me wonders if there’s not a little bit of cultural bias in there. You’re not allowed to say that losing a pet is as bad as losing a child (and personally I can’t imagine that it is), but that language seems to put it as close to the worst possible feeling as is socially acceptable.

Pets Are Good For People

If I was to put on a white lab coat and force you to do a mental arithmetic test, you’d get stressed out. This is a pretty common psychological stressor. If I made you do it in front of a friend, you might even get more stressed out, your heart rate would rise. However, if I made you do arithmetic at home, you’d feel calmer.

What’s really interesting about all this is if I made you do arithmetic at home in front of your best friend, and then made you do arithmetic in front of your dog, and lastly all by yourself,  you would be even calmer with your dog than by yourself. (Allen et al, 1991). Animals have this amazing ability to calm us down.

Blood pressure (and heart rate) go up with mental stress. Allen (who seems to have enjoyed making people do mental arithmetic in their home, I can only imagine she creeps up on neighbours with multiple choice tests) tested the presence of a dog against ACE inhibitors, drugs designed to lower blood pressure, and in the presence of mental stress, the dog helped people to cope better than the drug (Allen et al 2001).

This doesn’t mean dogs are natural anti-depressants. Karen Allen (unfortunately, not this one) uses a great phrase to describe how we view dogs: nonevaluative social support.

Which is a scientific way of saying ‘dogs are awesome because they don’t judge me when I’m eating Nutella out of a jar’. As an aside, I’ve heard some people complain that cats are more likely to judge than dogs, but I’ll point out cats have this weird fascination with accompanying you to the toilet, and like to make eye contact with anyone in the vicinity while they themselves are defecating, and so I’ve never felt too judged by any of my cats.

Don’t go to down the road of thinking that pets, or dogs, can ‘cure’ depression. But what they can do is alleviate stressful states (Wilson, 1991).

Pets and the Vulnerable

I have this belief that a child should have a pet. It’s probably one of my strongest child-rearing beliefs (apart from the whole ‘feed them, love them, clothe them’ idea). But I also believe that the elderly should have pets too.

My stepmother recently passed a significant birthday (I hasten to point out she’s not elderly). Her and my dad’s beautiful dog Rosa is entering old age however. At the  significant birthday we talked about retirement and I pointed out that after Rosa passed, they’d have to get a new dog at retirement. I couldn’t imagine them filling their days without a dog, for all there will be a long period of grieving after Rosa’s death.

My dad tells a story about his family. He, his sister and his mother conspire to get their dad a new dog after the old one dies. My Grandpa insists he doesn’t want a dog, can’t stand the thought of another dog, that their old dog was the only one for him. Newly retired, he sits in his living room and sulks.

My dad, my aunt and my grandmother go to a breeder who has some highland terrier puppies. They select a tiny white ball of fluff and take him home. They open the door to the living room and send the puppy through, waiting in the hallway for the reaction.

The puppy’s name was Angus, and he is the first dog I remember. He was my grandpa’s companion through my grandmother’s death, and helped me and grandpa chase flies with the hoover.

My Grandpa and his terrier Angus on the shores of Loch Lomond
My Grandpa and his terrier Angus on the shores of Loch Lomond

This is the essence of non-evaluative social support. When there are bad times, or particular stresses, they somehow help us cope. Elderly people require more social support, this manifests in reports of feeling lonely, of multiple visits to the doctors, etc. However elderly people with pets report visiting the doctor less often (Siegel, 1990, Knight and Edwards, 2008). And given the physiological changes that Allen recorded, I’m happy to assign this difference to the act of owning pets (as opposed to pet owners being less likely to visit the doctor because of some internal difference), but it should be pointed out that there are lifestyle benefits to pet owning.

But one of my absolute favourite papers about the benefits of pets to vulnerable people (yes, I have a favourite), is one by Kaminski et al (2002) [someone hosts a pdf here].

What’s more vulnerable than a hospitalised child? It’s a horrible thought. We have all sorts of therapies to help children adjust to being in hospital, and these include pet therapy. In this simple little study, the authors asked kids to rate their emotions before and after a play therapy session and before and after a pet therapy session. Pet therapy had a bigger effect on their positive interactions than play therapy did. Pets made sick kids feel good, and it wasn’t even their pet.

We Know The Effect, What’s the Reason?

This is the kind of scientific question I love – we see a nice measurable effect, but the why of the question is something intangible. It’s not a ‘real’, ‘quantifiable’ thing, and I think this is why I love animal personality. I love the difficulty of wrestling with non-linear qualities and multidimensional space. No one tell my old maths teacher.

Archer (1997) [a pdf here] wonders ‘why’ people love their pets. I love the part of this paper that talks about how often people show such an attachment to their pets that they do something ‘odd’, such as make the pet the best man at a wedding, fight for legal custody, etc. He talks about the commonly held idea that people own pets to make up for a deficiency in their human relations. If you can’t make real friends you go out and become a cat lady. (Here I’ll point out I’m currently considering getting a cat of my own). Ultimately Archer dismisses this, in part because in Western society we are very influenced by a particular line of thought which gives humans “ dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26), and in part because many studies show that pet-owning correlates with a lot of personality traits we consider desirable in our society.

In the end Archer is a proponent of the social parasite theory and says these advantages are not enough to provide an advantage to human survival. I’m not sure I agree, but that’s a topic of another post. The point is that whatever the mechanism, people feel a very strong attachment, undeniably love, to an entity which does not judge or present them with the kind of social contract that we engage in with other humans.

Back to the Sister . . .

I think my sister is doing fine. I hope she continues to do well. Do I think that cat would ‘fix’ her? No, not at all. But I do appreciate the phrase ‘unconditional love’. This next statement I have no reference for, but I think you’ll see it for what it is . . .

In films, tv shows and stories, there’s often a moment where somebody with little else to value in their life has their precious pet taken from them. We’ve named a trope for this effect: ‘kick the dog’. Who didn’t cry the first time they watched Kes? We know this feeling of love for our pets so well that when someone hurts a pet, we know it is immediate short-hand for ‘this person is so evil they have removed the last remnant of support from a person’s life’.

I don’t recommend dogs to combat the black dog in general, but I do think there’s something to be said to coming home to a pair of brown eyes.

 

Edited to add:

I thought I’d link to some depression resources for anyone in need of support. And I want to point out I sought my little sister’s permission to share her story. If you are feeling depressed, I really hope you find the support you need. xxx

NHS Depression Support Groups

Samaritans

AACAP Depression Resource

Hyperbole and a Half – Not a resource but a truly insightful look into what it feels like to be depressed.

 

FameLab 2014 – The Mystery of Pets

Earlier this year I entered FameLab 2014, a competition where scientists speak for about 3 minutes on a topic of their choice. The scientists have to be engaging, to speak in an understandable manner, and most importantly – they have to teach their listeners something about science.

I entered the Edinburgh heat and it was hugely enjoyable. The public speaking training at the start was some of the most valuable I’ve ever received and listening to the talks was also great fun. I didn’t succeed in that heat, but the organisers were very keen for me to submit a video entry.

Being the kind of prideful Scot whose nose gets put out of joint quite easily, I wasn’t going to submit a video entry until I started this blog. Since you have to enter via YouTube, I figure you guys might like to see my entry even if it doesn’t get any further.

Without further ado, I present: Pets Are Weird!