19 December 2006

coincidental meetings and genetic mutations


I had the good fortune to run into two very unexpected people during my flight back from school just yesterday. The first was a good friend, with whom I volunteered for many hours each week last year, but haven't seen in months. The second was the conductor of the amazing orchestra I used to play with--I wasn't amazing, mind you, just glad to be in it--who I ended up, coincidentally, sitting next to on the flight home. It was the strangest but coolest travel experience in my life. I guess there are many reasons to explain coincidental meetings, for example, the homophily of social networks or the tendency for people who already know one another to participate in the same activities, and thus show up in the same places at the same time. It might also just be that I was in several airports during the holiday season when everyone travels. Anyway, it reminded me that the world is a very small place.

It also reminded me of the fateful meetings of the characters in Heroes, in which people from around the world collide together for unexpected reasons. Yes, I'm talking about a TV show (a damn good one). And that leads me to another thing that's been on my mind. Heroes, very similar in principle to X-Men, is about the possibility that many individuals around the world have genetic mutations that have allowed them to develop special abilities, like flight, spontaneous regeneration, telekinesis, among many others. These individuals are supposedly one step ahead in the evolutionary path for humankind. Anyway, all this mention of the human genome reminds me of an idea I was recently introduced to in biochemistry lecture. (Welcome to my random train of thought)

Of the 3 billion basepairs that comprise the human genome, only 1.5% is actually protein-coding genes. The rest? Unknown functions, intruding sequences that are never transcribed into proteins, and, by far the scariest, a huge portion of transposons. Transposons are mobile genetic elements, genes that can excise themselves and move to other areas in the genome spontaneously. By doing so, they often disrupt protein-coding sequences and cause deleterious mutations. The transposons in the human genome are generally inactive, but there is reason to believe that they once were active in our ancestors. The mechanism of the Type I transposon (the retrotransposon) is closely related to the mechanism by which retroviruses like HIV infect the body. They make a copy of themselves, and paste these copies in multiple places along the genome. These transposons, about 60% of the genome, may have been involved in an HIV-related virus that our ancestors carried. Now, they are merely the genetic burden we carry, a method to prevent the mixing of species. What would happen if they suddenly became active again, somewhere down the evolutionary line?

I'm pretty sure evolution progresses in the direction of survival, so that is probably an irrational fear. But I tend to have a lot of irrational fears, and this is just one of the most interesting.

07 December 2006

The air in Colorado is better


From The Year in Medicine, Time magazine:

"Not only is the air cleaner in the Centennial State, but the people there also live longer. A harvard study showed that the seven U.S. counties with the greatest average life expectancy--81.3 years--were all in Colorado..."

It has something to do with the fact that living in the mountains increases the chances that you will have an active lifestyle.

I love the Rockies. Now I love them even more.

Some confused thoughts about military intervention and how it might apply to Iraq


Before I knew anything about foreign policy, I believed in non-intervention in every instance, fearing the consequences (and, especially, accusations of imperialism) of military intervention in sovereign nations, for peacekeeping purposes or otherwise. But as I am reading Samantha Power's "A Problem From Hell", a study of U.S. foreign policy regarding twentieth century genocide, I am beginning to realize the need for intervention in some extreme cases.

In class today we had a very animated debate about whether to advocate military intervention in some form or other, or more "soft" types of intervention such as economic sanctions and humanitarian aid, to prevent genocide. Some of the interesting concerns were:
  • If we advocate a peacekeeping force (UN perhaps), what is the sustainability of a peaceful state after the force is withdrawn?
  • In many cases of genocide, the perpetrators are enabled to act because they believe foreign powers to be either ignorant or unwilling to intervene when things turn violent. A good example of this is Rwanda, which followed shortly after the failure of a recent U.S. mission in Somalia. The Hutu authorities in Rwanda knew the U.S. wasn't about to intervene in a nation that was so near to Somalia (on the same continent--far too close), invoking too recent memories of humiliation. So, in such cases "soft" intervention is useless; the presence of a military peacekeeping force goes a long way in scaring the potential perpetrators of a genocide.
  • Military intervention can often penetrate into hard-to-reach areas, where often most of the at-risk victims are concentrated (concentration of the target population is a common preliminary step to committing genocide), whereas humanitarian aid often falls into the wrong hands and supplies and money are distributed amongst the perpetrators of the genocide.
Many other interesting points were brought up, but I'm feeling pretty split on this one. I feel like military intervention is the only direct action we can take to prevent genocide in many instances, especially considering the fact that most genocidal regimes are isolated to international censure (i.e. Cambodia), so any other measure would be impotent. But a military peacekeeping force will always find itself stuck in the same quandary that we face now in Iraq. Where Iraq differs is that, obviously, there is no genocide looming on the horizon, but then our presence there is having an effect completely opposite of peacekeeping--maybe genocide isn't so far on the horizon after all. Countries that have committed past genocides are more likely to commit them again, and Iraq is no exception to this rule.

The trick in deciding whether to intervene or not, now, is just being able to distinguish between a genocidal regime and a non-genocidal regime. Simple, really.

05 December 2006

Intellectual Property Rights


Amongst all the talk of pirated music, movies, designer clothes and handbags, I often forget that intellectual property rights apply to something with far graver consequences than all of this fake merchandise: illegally manufactured drugs. A mention on another blog of a recent Guardian article about--no joke--killer Viagra caught my attention, so I thought I'd share it here. Can intellectual property rights be more heavily applied to one field and less strict in others? Surely, selling illegal VCD copies of a newly released movie (some of which may not work) and selling illegally manufactured drugs (some of which may just be placebos without the acting ingredient) are entirely different. Right?

Illegal pharmaceuticals aren't the only controversial thing to be churned out of Chinese factories. Maybe a little bit less harmful to the general public, but otherwise just as gruesome, are the dead body factories that have been popping up in Dalian. Below is an excerpt from a NYTimes article in August (so I am a little late on this news):

"Inside a series of unmarked buildings, hundreds of Chinese workers, some seated in assembly line formations, are cleaning, cutting, dissecting, preserving and re-engineering human corpses, preparing them for the international museum exhibition market.


The mastermind behind this operation is Gunther von Hagens, a 61-year-old German scientist whose show, “Body Worlds,” has attracted 20 million people worldwide over the past decade and has taken in over $200 million by displaying preserved, skinless human corpses with their well-defined muscles and sinewy tissues.

But now with millions of people flocking to see “Body Worlds” and similar exhibitions, a ghastly new underground mini-industry has emerged in China.

With little government oversight, an abundance of cheap medical school labor and easy access to cadavers and organs — which appear to come mostly from China and Europe — at least 10 other Chinese body factories have opened in the last few years. These companies are regularly filling exhibition orders, shipping preserved cadavers to Japan, South Korea and the United States.

Fierce competition among body show producers has led to accusations of copyright theft, unfair competition and trafficking in human bodies in a country with a reputation for allowing a flourishing underground trade in organs and other body parts.

Here in China, determining who is in the body business and where the bodies come from is not easy. Museums that hold body exhibitions in China say they have suddenly “forgotten” who supplied their bodies, police officials have regularly changed their stories about what they have done with bodies, and even universities have confirmed and then denied the existence of body preservation operations on their campuses.

Human rights activists have attacked the exhibitions, calling them freak shows that may be using the bodies of mentally ill people and executed prisoners. In June, the police in the city of Dandong, about 190 miles northeast of here, discovered about 10 corpses in a farmer’s yard. The bodies were being used by a firm financed by foreigners, the government said, that was illegally involved in the body preservation business.

Worried about a growing trade in illegal bodies, the Chinese government issued new regulations in July that outlawed the purchase or sale of human bodies and restricted the import and export of human specimens, unless used for research. But it is unclear how the regulations will affect the factories."

Creepy stuff, huh? Leave it to China to produce the things that no other country wants to be known for.

I've been to see the Bodies Exhibit while in New York last year, and although it made me feel queasy I have to recommend it. It's a little morbid, especially a particular exhibit I remember, in which a skinless man stood holding hands with his plastinated skin, sculpted into the outline of his body. But it definitely beats a gross anatomy lab without the smell of formaldehyde.

04 December 2006

Moving to a New Venue

About the title: I recently learned this phrase in Chinese class and thought it particularly apt for describing the phase of change I'm going through as well as the constant state of change of the world. Unconscious and unnoticeable.