Friday, January 27, 2017

Scientists as Communicators, or, Those Amazing Insects

May Berenbaum, President of the Entomological Society of America, published an editorial in the September 23, 2016 issue of Science magazine. She described the unfortunate lack of knowledge and appreciation that the general public has regarding insects. The average American thinks of insects as disgusting and dangerous. This, she says, has to change.

One reason that it has to change is that some very important challenges—not just ecological, but economic and medical—depend on insect research. The first one that comes to mind is the massive dieoff of honeybees, which pollinate important crop plants. As May said in a radio interview a year or so ago, “every third bite” of food depends either directly (as in apples) or indirectly (as in cattle that eat alfalfa) on pollinator activity. But in the editorial May also told amazing success stories in controlling the spread of insect pests and the diseases that they spread. Her main example was the male-sterilization approach to eradicating screw-worm flies (whose maggots live in cows), first on CuraƧao and then, by 1966, the United States. In 2005, USDA wanted to eradicate screw-worms in Central America, to prevent them from spreading back to the United States. But Republicans dismissed this as a flagrant and silly waste of taxpayer money—I can just hear them saying who the f*** cares about screw-worms?—and it was mentioned in The Pig Book: How Government Wastes Your Money. It appears that “just ignore insects” might be a good summary of Republican policy. One Trump administration official late last fall briefly speculated that mosquito-spread Zika virus research was not necessary.

May puts part of the blame on entomologists themselves, who appear to be even more loath than other scientists to tell taxpayers and readers about the importance of their work. May said, “entomologists…need to talk about insect science with the rest of the world.” May has spent an entire career not only as one of the leading entomologists in the world but also as a tireless promoter of the public appreciation of insects. Her books include Ninety-nine Gnats, Nits, and Nibblers, Ninety-Nine More Maggots, Mites, and Munchers, and Bugs in the System. But even as a very young assistant professor at the University of Illinois, she had a radio show on a local radio station, WEFT, Those Amazing Insects. They only let her have a few minutes and she crammed as much as she could into that precious time. That is why I refer to her by her first name; I remember her from back in those days, when I was a graduate student at Illinois. I think I attended all of her Insect Fear Film Festivals while I was in grad school.

May, shown here with me and her collaborator, the late Art Zangerl, in 2009, is an unusually gifted communicator. And I consider myself, while not quite in May’s league, to be above average. But all of us scientists can—and must—improve our communication with those citizens whom we serve and who pay at least part of our salaries.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Militant Trumpsters: How Much of It Is Hot Air?

Donald Trump and the militant Republicans have said lots of alarming things that, if they actually did them, would lead us toward a dark age from which we might never recover. But much of it might just be hot air. Here are some examples.

Anti-Muslim bias. Trump has been a very vocal attacker of Islam, in all of its forms, peaceful as well as violent. He promised to start a Muslim registry and to keep Muslims from even visiting the United States. But his pick for the United Nations, Nikki Haley, rejected this idea (see here).

Oil, oil, oil. Trump’s conservatives seem to think that America should scrap all of the progress it has made toward renewable energy production and rely totally on coal and oil. One might think that his choice for Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, would believe this also. But, although Rick Perry is one of the principal anti-environmental voices in the world today, he also promoted renewable energy (especially wind energy) when he was governor of Texas. Parts of Texas are devoted solely to oil (such as the Midland-Odessa region) while others (especially Sweetwater) have invested heavily in wind energy.

Federal land giveaway. The federal government (that is, you, the taxpayers) own millions of acres of wild lands, primarily in the west. Congressional Republicans are poised to hand over much of that land to state control (see here) which means that some states might sell it off to private interests. Trump will probably agree to this. But it appears that Trump’s pick for Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, says that there will be no selloff of federal lands. This might be a technicality—transferring land to state control is not a selloff—but it might be that Trump is just spouting rhetoric, knowing that his cabinet will not actually implement what he says.

Global warming. Trump has also famously said that global warming is a hoax—in fact, a hoax started by the Chinese. However, Ryan Zinke says that global warming is real and that he will believe what the scientists say about it (see here).

Torture. Trump campaigned on the idea that we should torture political detainees. Then, after the election, he reversed his opinion, no doubt in part due to the fact that his nominee for Secretary of Defense, James “Mad Dog” Mattis, made it clear that torture does not work (see here).

The most famous example of all is the huge wall that Trump said he would build along the border with Mexico, and make Mexico pay for it. Ha, ha, he was just joking. We all fell for it like suckers: his supporters lapped it up, his opponents such as myself got all bent out of shape.

What this means is that we have no idea what Trump will really do. Trump courted the idiot vote and got it. But when it comes to actually governing a country, he has already discovered that he cannot legally do many of the things he boasted that he would do.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Welcome, Science!

With the inauguration of a federal administration that is more hostile to scientific research and understanding than perhaps any in American history, scientists are beginning to feel anxious. Not all scientists; medical research will probably do okay. But climate scientists, ecologists, and evolutionary scientists now feel like a persecuted minority. As a participant in all three areas of research and writing, I feel like I do not want the new government to even know what I think. Fortunately, unlike some climate scientists such as Michael Mann, who has been repeatedly persecuted by the Republicans, I am a small target.

Many other countries are much more open to scientific insights. Make no mistake: they are opening their arms to American scientists. One of these countries is China. In the fall of 2016, at least four Chinese cities bought two-page spreads near the front of Science magazine depicting themselves as wonderful places for scientists to live and work.

  • September 9: Foshan “has an obvious advantage of industrial cluster.” The advertisement proudly displayed the data about how prosperous this city is, its 7.4 million residents and its 170,255 private enterprises.
  • September 23: Nanhai advertised itself as close to the Hong Kong economically-open region, and “a highly civilized city worth visiting. It is also considered as the national sanitary city…and one of the highly-educated cities in Guangdong.”
  • September 30: Sanshui promoted its industrial potential, but mainly depicted itself as a wonderful place to live. “The southern scenery is coquettish and graceful,” says the advertisement. “Here, with picturesque scenery, people live and enjoy the peaceful and prosperous environment as well as the wonderful and leisurely moment. Here, has got the breeze, drizzle and canoes on the river form the beautiful scenery of three rivers in the misty rain.” Thank God for Google Translate.
  • October 7: Shundei advertised itself as a growing hub of manufacturing.

Of course, they mostly want to attract the same scientists that American corporations want. But it has escaped nobody’s attention that China does not officially denounce scientists who study evolution, ecology, and climate science. If I were young and mobile and with a freshly-minted Ph.D. I would give China some serious consideration.

Many American cities could, and do, promote themselves in similar terms, and they are right to do so. Tulsa, where I live, has as its slogan “A new kind of energy,” meaning the promotion of entrepreneurship instead of just the continuation of Tulsa’s twentieth century image as an oil town. The difference is at the national level, where Beijing promotes science and Washington is antagonistic toward it.

In order to prevent the “brain drain” of scientists out of the United States, it is not necessary for the government to spend a lot of money. All we need is for the Republican leaders to quit making scientists sound like traitors. The Republican Congress has relentlessly pursued investigations of climate scientists in order to discredit them, and now they have a president who has proclaimed that global warming is a hoax.

I do not foresee a massive exodus of scientists out of America. But certainly more scientists will leave America than at any time in the past.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Evolution: Using the Hand You Are Dealt

A mistake common among both “creationists” and “evolutionists” is that their preferred mode of origin produces perfection: an adaptation, whether created or evolved, is the best possible solution to the challenges of existence. The exceptions to this view are so numerous that I believe no one could list all of them. I just wanted to tell you about a recently-published example.

Those of us who are enchanted by the beauty of photosynthesis, all the way from the deep emerald color of chlorophyll a to the utter transformation of Earth that photosynthesis has wrought in the last three billion years, are tempted to think that it is a perfect process. I can hardly contain my enthusiasm for photosynthesis. But, for all of its elegance and global importance, photosynthesis has several flaws. One is that the light-absorption reactions consist, for no good reason other than evolutionary history, of two cycles rather than just one. Somewhere back in time two different bacterial systems merged together into the chloroplast photosynthetic system that covers the Earth today so much that large parts of the planet appear green from outer space. I suspect that, had a Designer made photosynthesis, this Designer might have made a single, efficient cycle rather than smooshing to previous cycles together. But perhaps the most noteworthy limitation of photosynthesis is rubisco.

Meet rubisco. You gotta love it. About half of the water-soluble protein in a leaf is rubisco. It is an enzyme that removes carbon dioxide from the air and fixes (attaches) it to other molecules, which will ultimately become sugar. This is the major short-term process that removes carbon dioxide from the air and almost the only process that creates food upon which all the food chains on Earth depend. That is, rubisco is a carboxylase. But it is also an oxygenase. Oxygen molecules can get into rubisco and crowd out the carbon dioxide molecules. This starts a whole cascade of reactions called photorespiration. Rubisco does not react very much with oxygen, but oxygen is over 5000 times as common in the air as carbon dioxide, so it turns out that photorespiration significantly inhibits photosynthesis—by as much as one-quarter. If only rubisco were not such an inefficient carboxylase, the world would be a lot greener—probably over 30 percent greener. Forests would probably grow 30 percent more biomass, although deserts and tundra, limited by water and temperature, might not look very different. Most physiologists consider rubisco to be the rate limiting step in photosynthesis, the slow guy that holds everything else up. Come to think of it, this is probably why there is so much rubisco. Each molecule is so slow that chloroplasts have to make a whole lot of them just to get the job done.

But rubisco is not the only game in town. There are apparently at least five other carboxylases that are found in cells. That is, the genes for them already exist, but are not used in the most common form of photosynthesis. And they are all more efficient than rubisco.

Thomas Schwander and his colleagues in Germany have devised an artificial pathway of carbon fixation that they call the CETCH pathway (read about it here and here). While it would be difficult to insert the enzymes of this pathway into living plant cells (in vivo), they are working on a commercially viable industrial system that removes excess carbon dioxide from the air and makes them into organic molecules. This system is not just a little bit more efficient than a system based on rubisco; it is thirty-seven times more efficient!

A Designer would have built photosynthesis on something like the CETCH pathway; or, who knows, maybe something even more efficient that the Designer would be able to think of. But evolution uses whatever hand of cards it is dealt. At the time and place when the prevalent modern form of photosynthesis evolved, rubisco was ready and available to be conscripted for that job. And today the natural world is pretty much stuck with it.

Photosynthesis is no different from any other biological process in being the result of an evolutionary pathway that consists of lucky adaptations. Your DNA is not as efficient as it could be. It is filled with dead genes and dead viruses and repeated elements from nucleotide duplication that went a little crazy. Your DNA is not like an orderly house or office. It is like an attic, or the offices of some of my professorly colleagues, in which piles of papers totter in corners and occasionally fall over but in which they can eventually find the papers they need. And almost all the food in the world (unless you live at volcanoes at the bottom of the sea) comes from photosynthesis, which could be a lot more efficient if only it had not been designed by the brainless process of evolution.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

New YouTube video

You can now watch "Darwin apologizes to Neanderthals" here!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Welcome to Another Year

Welcome to the ninth calendar year of essays on this blog, which has been online for about 100 months. As in all previous years, I will focus on scientific issues related primarily to evolution and ecology, and the way evolutionary and ecological concepts help us to understand ourselves better. If I start to rant about politics or religion, I always try to bring it back to evolution and ecology. These are the things, not politics and religion, in which I have expertise.

I wanted to start the year by providing some permalinks to a selected few essays in this blog that those of you (most of you) who were not reading it in fall 2009 might want to look back at. There are so many entries (496 so far) that right now all I can do is highlight a few of them from 2009 and 2010.

Look back at some of these and enjoy them.