Monday, June 25, 2012

Follow me at SMBE

I totally forgot to tell you earlier, but it isn't too late. You can follow the goings-on at SMBE 2013 in Dublin at the hash tag #smbe12, and I'll be tweeting from @mwilsonsayres.

In other news, baby girl turned 18 months this last week, flew like a champion, and has been great here, except she is still on CA time (meaning she stays up till 4 and sleeps till noon).

And, of course, even during a brief tour of the Guinness brewery, I was drawn to the Science highlight.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Accessible research: Male mutation bias

One of the topics I study is male mutation bias. In females all of our eggs are formed at birth (minus the last meiotic division, which happens monthly in humans), while males continue to produce sperm throughout their lifetime. If most mutations occur through errors during replication, then we expect more mutations to originate in the male germline (which is continually replicating to produce new sperm) than in the female germline.

One way we can study whether there are differences in the female mutation rate and the male mutation rate by looking at the accumulation of fixed mutations (called substitutions) on chromosomes that spend different amounts of time in the female and male germline. For example, the non-sex chromosomes (autosomes) are present in two copies in females, and two copies in males, and so are equally affected by the female mutation rate (Uf) and male mutation rate (Um). Alternatively the X chromosome is present in two copies in females, but only one copy in males, so represents 2/3 of the female mutation rate, and 1/3 of the male mutation rate. And, the Y chromosome, being present only in males, represents only the male mutation rate. 
By comparing substitution rates on any two pairs of chromosome types (X/A, Y/A or X/Y), and doing just a little math, we can solve for the male-to-female mutation rate ratio (Um/Uf = alpha). If alpha is equal to 1 then the male and female mutation rates are equal, and there is no bias. If alpha is greater than 1 then we can deduce that more mutations come from the male germline than the female germline.

So far alpha has been equal to or greater than one in all mammals studied. How cool is that?! There are many implications of male mutation bias, and I'll talk more about this in an upcoming post.

What inspired me, after so long, to finally give the background to one of my areas of interest? Was it interest in furthering your understanding of the science that I'm passionate about? Was it a general interest in promoting scientific literacy? Was it my enthusiasm for my research? Well, yes.

But most of all, I wanted to help you understand why this cartoon is especially funny to me.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The future of infectious diseases. Watch it.

Take home messages:

  • You can watch evolution in progress in quickly-reproducing organisms, like malaria
  • Over 100,000 Americans die of infections that were easily treated 30 years ago due to the evolution of resistance (twice the number of people who will die in car crashes).
  • In an arms race between us and infectious diseases, we lose.
  • We need to understand the evolutionary forces unleashed by medicine before we can manage infectious disease
  • We need to ask, "Will (this drug) STAY safe, and CONTINUE to work", not just if it is safe and whether it will work.
  • The Lancet (a high impact medical journal) rejected an evolutionary paper addressing malaria because, "a good understanding of evolutionary biology is beyond most of our readers."
I wonder:

How can we engage medical professionals in evolutionary research? How do we emphasize the importance of evolutionary biology to medicine and health to the public? A part of me thinks that if we can reach doctors, and have medical professionals address the impact of evolutionary processes to their patients in common clinical settings, then acceptance among the general public of evolution and its importance will follow naturally. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Happy Anniversary

Better late than never.  At least I got it up before Oct 2012!
I take you to be no other than you are, loving what I know of you, trusting what I do not yet know, with respect for your integrity and faith in your love for me through all our years and in all that life may bring us."

On Halloween 2009 we got married in a beautiful barn, surrounded by friends and family outside of State College, Pennsylvania:

In 2010, as GI Joe and a Treasure Troll, we celebrated our first of many anniversaries (this one in State College, Pennsylvania):

Two years later we were three! In 2011 Captain Hook, Peter Pan and Tinkerbell celebrated a wonderful anniversary (in Berkeley, CA):

Friday, June 8, 2012

Sometimes it's better to not say anything at all

Last weekend my daughter and I were on our own, so we spent the whole weekend exploring and keeping busy. We were excited to find out that it was "Family Day" at our local Farmer's Market. Family day included a pen with small farm animals for petting and lots of kid-friendly booths set up with crafts, games and snacks.

At one of the booths there was a wheel set up with different fruits and vegetables on it. The kids could spin the wheel and try to guess the names of the various foods. They were also handing out reusable bags and individually-wrapped snacks from some health-food company. While we were waiting our turn, the mom ahead of us, with two school-aged children, started explaining how she refused to give her children anything wrapped in plastic, so they would not be allowed to have the snacks. Sure, okay. Then, when the woman working the table offered her a reusable bag the woman flipped out, going on about how "those things are full of chemicals", and how no one should ever use them. Sure, you should wash your reusable bags, and some bags imported from China have been shown to have high lead concentrations, but that's not what this woman said. It's the way she phrased it that rubbed me the wrong way.

It made me want to say that it's a good thing she doesn't use anything with chemicals in it. She probably never buys clothing, washes her dishes or clothes, cleans her house, wears shoes, drinks water, eats, oh, anything. Because they're all made of... chemicals! Sometimes I feel bad for chemicals. The word has taken on such a negative connotation lately (although, perhaps for good reason) that it is difficult to have a conversation about safe chemical usage, or even useful and productive chemical usage, because it's become a term used for fear-mongering.

Yes, I want to reduce the amount of carcinogenic and teratogenic substances in the environment, and I prefer to wash pesticides off of my fruits and vegetables. But, chemicals have done a lot of good, and make up everything and everyone around us, so maybe we can try to be more specific, and more informed about the kinds of chemicals that we want to avoid instead of indiscriminately rejecting things. It's all about balance.

Parenthood makes me laugh

Our 17-month old daughter knows that if she tells us she needs to pee, we'll let her get up and go to the potty, even if we've been trying to get her to go to sleep for some time. Generally she'll walk strait to the bathroom, sit on the potty (sometimes she pees, but usually not), then we'll head back to her bed. Tonight, on her way back, she flung her arms on the couch and started fussing. Then she turned around and abruptly stopped crying when she saw her train. Scott asked if she wanted to take her train to bed. She said "yah!!", rushed over to pick it up, protectively hugged it close to her chest, then bee-lined it for bed. All the while I was sitting like a camouflaged lizard in a chair against the wall, not moving so that she wouldn't get distracted by me, stifling my laughter. It's the small things.