Week in Review: May 29

Editorial / by TJ Kelleher /

Stem cell guidelines from on high, geoengineering on the cheap, how genetic engineering could have created a new model organism, and the evolution of big brains.

Illustration: Tyler Lang

Stem Cell Rules for the Ages?

The National Institutes of Health asked for public comment on their proposed embryonic stem cell regulations, and did they get it: The comment period closed May 26 with at least 20,000 submissions received. Among them came a response from Alan Leshner, the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who highlighted what may be the most dangerous aspect of the proposed guidelines: That they would exclude almost all work done on embryonic stem cells in the past decade, regardless of whether it was done with the 20 cell lines approved for US funding in 2001, or with cell lines paid for with private money. At the root of the debate is a question of bioethics. The best practices of bioethics prior to this spring—including those developed by the US National Research Council and the International Society for Stem Cell Research—have been found wanting, and any work done under them will be found, ex post facto, essentially guilty of violating what the Obama Administration understands to be the way things should be done. The new guidelines would leave embryonic stem cell work done with private money in the past eight years ineligible for federal funding in the future; under the proposed guidelines, the status quo under President Bush—separate laboratories, separate staff, and separate equipment for “unethical” research, and retarded progress for all—would remain essentially unchanged. At the very least, Leshner and others argue, extant cell lines must be grandfathered into the new stem cell regime.

Patrick Taylor, the deputy general counsel at Children’s Hospital Boston and a lecturer at Harvard Medical School, argued in the journal Cell Stem Cell that, beyond the obvious demerits of excluding eight years’ worth of work on embryonic stem cells, the new guidelines not only ignore an ongoing, good faith discussion of the ethics of embryonic stem cell research, but were issued as though they represented a genuine ethical consensus. There is no certainty, Taylor says, as to what actions are most ethical in stem cell research. He insists that workers under earlier guidelines must be given the benefit of the doubt, and their work allowed to continue.

The difference between this proposal and grandfathering might seem semantic, but it is important: For the NIH to hold researchers accountable for following past moral guidelines is like a Christian condemning Moses to hell because he didn’t follow Jesus—it’s nonsensical. It’s an idea that rule-makers should keep in mind in this case, and in every other.

Roughing Up Diamond

An article in Science this week added to the great pile that UCLA geographer and Pulitzer-Prize winner Jared Diamond finds himself under, since a lawsuit was filed in New York alleging that an article—a story of revenge and tribal warfare in New Guinea in the aftermath of a man’s death—in the New Yorker last year was false, the death toll and damage incurred by the war grossly overstated. Diamond, the claimants Daniel Wemp and Isum Mandingo argue, libeled them. The pair wants $10 million. Diamond, in his defense, insists that all he did was write about what Wemp told him in two interviews. Whatever the merits of the case, it’s hard to understand how it matters to science if Diamond got duped. It’s not as though his article has had some radical effect on anthropology’s understanding of warfare in New Guinea, or on a human impulse for revenge; this is hardly Margaret Mead in Samoa territory. And even if it were, Diamond, like Mead, does not seem to have acted in bad faith, even if both might have been guilty of going to the press with the story they wanted, rather than the story they might have had. When you’re told a fish tale, you should ask to see the fish.

Steven Chu-Brand™ Titanium White Paint

After the geoengineering kerfuffle that John Holdren got into a few weeks back, it is gratifying to see Energy Secretary Steven Chu talking openly about the need to use methods other than just cutting carbon emissions to fight climate change. Especially given, at least in the United States, the fairly lackluster proposals along those lines made so far. Chu’s proposal isn’t sexy; it doesn’t involve sophisticated technology, buying Priuses for farmers, or a carbon bourse. Just white paint, which—according to Chu’s old colleague Art Rosenfeld at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory—if applied to our roofs and roadways would reflect enough solar energy to be the equivalent of taking cars out of circulation for at least 11 years. So we all now have our summer projects. But be sure to buy sunglasses. The glare might be something awful.

What Are Big Brains For?

The Scarecrow of Oz wondered about his life if he only had a brain, but biologists have long wondered why animals have the ones they do, especially when it comes to size. One possibility was that a big brain, relative to body mass, might be an important adaptation to social living. Two researchers, John Finarelli of the Univeristy of Michigan and John Flynn of the American Museum of Natural History, tested that hypothesis in a paper published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week. By establishing a baseline relationship between body mass and brain volume in ancestral and living “primitive” species of Carnivora (cats, dogs, bears, weasels, and their relatives), Finarelli and Flynn were able to establish which groups (such as modern cats or bears) have evolved new body mass–brain volume relationships. And they found, earlier claims notwithstanding, that there was no relationship between brain size and social complexity; some big-brained groups were solitary, some small-brained ones social. The evolution of brain size has yet to be solved.

Modified Marmoset Passes Gene to Offspring, Eclipses Mice?

A paper in Nature yesterday announced the first successful transmission of an introduced gene from a marmoset to its offspring. The work, undertaken by Erika Sasaki and her colleagues at the Central Institute for Experimental Animals in Kawasaki, Japan, marks the first time that a modified primate has done so. The first transgenic monkey, ANDi, was apparently too wimpy to get a date, others, modified to suffer traits such as Huntington’s disease, have not lived long enough to breed. Researchers expect the success to bring new attention to primates as model organisms for genetic disease.

And not a moment too soon. Just as a paper in PLoS Biology by Deanna Church of the National Center for Biotechnology Information, Bethesda, Maryland, and Leo Goodstadt of the Univeristy of Oxford announced a complete genome of the mouse—the “premier animal model for understanding human disease and development,” as the authors put it—a separate paper in Science points out a crucial difference in the metabolic pathways of humans and mice. The mice lack an analogue of a protein found in humans that seems important to understanding diabetes; mice, then, seem a bit less useful as a model organism for medical research. Although the authors of that paper suggest that mice could be modified to express the newly discovered protein, such discoveries, along with the work of investigators such as Sasaki, suggest that the time for a new premier model species might have come.

The Seismological Defense

North Korea is prone to saber rattling, and this week has seen a grand example of the “Hermit Kingdom” in full hostile mode. North Korea, by its own account, successfully detonated an atomic bomb. After their failure in 2006, however—and given the variety of rantings that emanate from Pyongyang—it’s best not to take a DPRK spokesman’s word for much. So how can we tell if what they say is true? By studying earthquakes. The basic study of earthquakes is critical to knowing when a bomb has gone off: An earthquake shakes the ground side to side as its energy propagates through the planet. A bomb, on the other hand, compresses it. Seismologists were able to ascertain that North Korea did in fact detonate an atomic bomb this week as well as how strong it was. Basic science then, is critical to our national defense. It’s something for Republicans—whenever they feel like earning points with the ignorant by ridiculing some esoteric bit of Earth science like volcanology—to keep in mind.

Originally published May 29, 2009

Tags decision making ethics policy politics

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