Book Review: Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life

Hubby and I have been busy little bees thanks to both of us having to  present at our lab meetings last week and with my students having an upcoming exam. We apologize for the lack of blog activity. Here is a book review for you.

Today, I review Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life by Marcus Wohlsen. I was initially drawn to this book because science in a research lab at a university can be quite the expensive endeavor. I mean thousands and thousands of dollars to run a lab. You just can’t do science because you enjoy it. You end up having to beg for money from the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health in hopes that you will have the money to pay for lab materials, care for research animals, and possibly employ a post-doctoral scientist in you lab. It’s a daunting task. So, I wanted to read about how scientists were doing the sort of science I do every day, but in their garage.

The book starts out with a story of Kay Aull, a woman whose father was diagnosed with the disease of hemochromatosis. It is a common hereditary disease, but is often tricky to diagnose because its symptoms resemble many other health problems. Genetic testing for this disease is expensive, and insurance companies often won’t pay for the test until other disease possibilities have been ruled out. Aull wanted to see if she could develop a genetic test for the disease at home. Aull had the know how since she attended MIT and worked for a DNA synthesis company. She constructed a lab in the closet of her small apartment. She was able to determine that she carried the mutation for the disease, allowing her knowledge that could be valuable if future health issues arose.

This ingenuity and desire to make science more accessible is at the heart of this book. The above story is one of many about biopunks who want biology to be something anyone has the ability to do at home, from guys who want to develop field tests for infectious diseases in developing countries, to a woman who wants to have an at home test for melamine contamination. The book also shares stories about some of history’s earliest biopunks, including Lady Montagu, who played around with early inoculations for smallpox.

The risk of being a biopunk is also discussed. This poorly understood sect of individuals become closely watched due to the threat of bioterrorism. People are afraid of what these folks could be cooking up in their homes. In fact, the FBI has a liaison that attends biopunk conferences in order to build relationships with the community.

Overall, this book is an interesting read. It’s nice that there are people out there who want to make science accessible and affordable. Who knows what types of innovations are being cooked up in someone’s garage?

Old Misconceptions Die Hard: Scientific knowledge suppresses but does not supplant earlier intuitions

ResearchBlogging.orgTeachers operate on the assumption that students are “empty vessels” they can fill with new information.  But many students begin classes with assumptions about the world that, although intuitive, are actually incorrect.  For example, many students incorrectly believe that individuals can evolve or that all members of a species evolve together.  Teachers assume that instruction and testing will make students understand that both of these assumptions are wrong and that only populations evolve.  However, recent research suggests that simply providing students with factual information doesn’t make them drop their faulty assumptions.  As it turns out, old misconceptions die hard.
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Why your college genetics class sucks

A college lecture hall — just look at all the excited faces.
From greatcollegeadvice.com

Although I am now a practicing geneticist, I hated genetics when I was in school.  My Genetics 101 course followed the same syllabus that colleges all around the country use, a historical outline that emphasizes discovery — the discovery of phenotypic variation (Mendel and his wrinkled peas), the discovery of DNA and its structure (Watson and Crick and Franklin), the discovery of genetic mutation (in Mendel’s case, a disruptive insertion within the rugosus gene).  We’re presented a top-down view of genetics from phenotype (wrinkled versus smooth) to genotype (mutation in rugosus) that should compel us to ask “Why?”  But before the bell ever rings on that first day, most students already know that the answer to this question.  “Why?” lies somewhere in our DNA and we don’t want to discover it all over again.  And, unfortunately, this historical top-down approach doesn’t increase our understanding of genes in the age of whole-genome sequencing.  In response to this problem,  PLoS Biology published the short article, “Why Do We Have to Learn This Stuff?  A New Genetics for 21st Century Students.”  In it, Dr. Rosemary Redfield describes the problems of current genetic courses and offers her own remedies. Continue reading

Everything is Illuminated: Restoration of vision after transplantation of photoreceptors

ResearchBlogging.orgThe retina is a paper-thin layer of tissue found at the back of the eye that allows us to see light.  Without a retina (or the cells that make it up), we’re blind.  Because mutations that cause the retina to break-down affect nearly 1 in 4,000 people world-wide, researchers eagerly study new ways to treat this condition.  So far, they have identified over 50 genes that, when mutated, cause retinal degeneration and blindness.  In fact, some of the earliest successes in gene therapy involved cases of retinal degeneration and blindness. Now researchers are trying something new: retinal transplants, or physically moving cells from healthy eyes to those that are unhealthy.  In a recent study published by Pearson et al. (2012) in Nature (not open-access, sorry), researchers moved rod photoreceptor cells from healthy mice to those that suffered from night-blindness and — boom! — restored vision to the mice. They even have a cool video. Continue reading

Author Margret Atwood on Science and Religion

Margaret Atwood

As both a scientist and a writer, one of my favorite authors to read is Margaret Atwood.  She writes lucid prose that simple yet elegant, and she has a knack for creating fictional worlds that you can just see.  Her best-known works speculate about the future of humans and society, and almost all of them are dark and haunting with only the thinnest silver lining.   Continue reading

Why A Politician’s Opinion of Evolution Matters

Since darwinbookcats is in part a blog about evolution, I’ve recently posted about the scientific opinions of the GOP presidential candidates.  One reason is because these candidates have decided to make their opinions on evolution known.  But a second reason is because these opinions are important.  In a new blog article for the Washington Post, biologist Richard Dawkins explains why. Continue reading