Thursday, June 19, 2008

What's "beaver" in Spanish?

Nature reports this week on how the beloved Canadian beaver has outworn its welcome in Tierra del Fuego, where 50 of the things introduced in the 1940s bred like rodents will, and now number about 100 000. As intended, it it did provide a substantial fur market for the indigenous people, but had devastating consequences for the local flora and fauna. They are now looking into ways of "eradicating" the beavers. One hopes they don't import a pile of foxes or something.

While traveling in New Zealand a couple years ago, I met a guy at the hostel who had been touring through Australia. He told a story about some guys he met in a small town up in the northeast. When asked what they did fun for fun, these guys said they "go on a catshoot," by which they meant they would drive around (perhaps in varying states of intoxication) and shoot at cats with BB guns. While this sounds cruel and appalling at first, I later learned that cats were a huge problem in the rainforests there. Escaped domestic cats bred over time have become fearsome predators and unbalanced the already wonky ecosystem (what with all the cane toads, pigs, foxes, rabbits and whatnot). Which just goes to show that country people know what's good for the country everywhere you go, even if they sometimes seem like freaky rednecks.

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Small bits of news: Nature reports that biotech giant Invitrogen (who have just finished buying Millipore, Upstate, Chemicon, and maybe several other firms) have offered about US$6.7 billion for Applied Biosystems, another giant in the industry. One is reminded of beer companies, or Microsoft. Canada will partner with California in a $100 million investment into research on cancer stem cells, which will cement our positions as world leaders in this field; strategically it looks like a smart investment, and says that cancer is back in vogue with funding agencies. Scientific American reports on another important step in killing the nature vs. nurture worldview, and what one of the study's authors very cleverly refers to as "genetic nihilism."

This kind of thinking, in which one assumes that genes dictate our lives and there's nothing we can do about, is reminiscent of destiny (or divine purpose) vs. free will debates that have raged through history (and to my admittedly primitive understanding of such things, there's still no conclusive winner). Genes don't change in their sequences over the course of life, but the ways they are structured, "read," regulated, and affect our lives is very much open to input from a surprisingly wide variety of sources. Trust me, I'm doing a whole doctoral thesis on it. Not to say that every gene can be turned up or down so easily, but very good evidence is accumulating that simple things like proper diet and regular exercise can push gene expression in certain directions, which are usually considered good for the animals involved in terms of any number of health indicators.

So what we're saying as biologists, just to make it absolutely clear: Genetics rule our lives. Genetics do not rule our lives. Any questions?