The Monument to Mice

The Institute of Cytology and Genetic in Novosibirsk, Russia has a statue dedicated to lab mice and the role they have played in a variety of medical research.

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Bronze Mouse Sculpture

The statue was unveiled in 2013 following a fund drive for $50,000, which includes the cost of the surrounding mini park. As sculptor Andrei Kharkevich explains, the statue “combines both the image of a laboratory mouse and a scientist, because they are connected to each other and serve one cause. The mouse is imprinted at the time of scientific discovery.”

Smithsonian Magazine notes another prominent feature of the institute:

“The most notable research to come out of the institute in its 60 years was a long-running study on animal domestication, reported Maggie Koerth-Baker in 2014 for BoingBoing. Researchers in the program, started by Soviet geneticist Dmitry Belyaev, carefully bred more than 40 generations of wild silver foxes, and documented the extensive physical changes the animals experienced as each generation grew increasingly friendly and playful toward humans. The experiment is still ongoing today, and some of the domesticated foxes are sold as sought-after pets to help fund the research. Perhaps a monument to the fox will one day join the knitting mouse.”

Mice have been interacting with humans, often to our mutual detriment, for around 15,000. Yet for decades they have been the go-to animal for studying everything from cancer to disease to treatment to even the effect of space travel (this is due to their simple, fast-growing biology, which is nonetheless still complex enough to be a conveniently close, if not imperfect, analogue to the human body).

While many researchers have raised both ethical and practical questions about using mice for science, virtually everyone agrees on the invaluable role mice played and continue to play in biomedical research.

In addition to being the only institute with a high profile (and adorable) home to the humble lab mouse, the Institute of Cytology and Genetics was established in 1957, only four years after the discovery of DNA in the U.K., making it one of the earliest institutions of its kind.

Photo credit: My Modern Met

Happy 23rd Birthday Dolly!

Well, sort of. Technically, she was born July 5, 1996, but it was on this day in 1997 that scientists at the Roslin Institute in Scotland announced the birth of Dolly, a female sheep who was the first mammal to have successfully been cloned from an adult cell. She was the only lamb that survived to adulthood from 277 attempts.

The funding for Dolly’s cloning was provided by PPL Therapeutics —a Scottish biotech firm near the University of Edinburgh, where the institute is based—and the British Ministry of Agriculture.

Dolly was born the summer before and had three mothers: one provided the egg, another the DNA, and a third carried the cloned embryo to term. She was created using the technique of “somatic cell nuclear transfer”, where the cell nucleus from an adult cell is transferred into a developing egg cell (called an unfertilized oocyte) that has had its cell nucleus removed. An electric shock stimulates the hybrid cell to divide, and when it develops into a blastocyst (which will eventually form the embryo) it is implanted in a surrogate mother.

Dolly lived only about half as long as her breed, leading some to speculate that her cloning had something to do with it. However, an analysis of her DNA found no anomalies, and her death by lung disease is particularly common for sheep kept indoors (Dolly had to sleep inside for security reasons). None of Dolly’s six children—the result of conventional mating with another sheep—bore any unusual defects of properties. As of 2016, scientists reported no defects in thirteen cloned sheep, including four from the same cell line as Dolly.

Dolly’s legacy has far outlived her, and will likely continue to into the 21st century. She quickly paved the way for the successful cloning of other large mammals, including pigs, deer, horses, and bulls. Making cloned mammals was initially highly inefficient, but by 2014, Chinese scientists reported a 70–80% success rate cloning pigs, while in 2016, a Korean company, Sooam Biotech, was producing 500 clones embryos a day.

As recently as 2018, a primate species was successfully cloned using the same method for producing Dolly: Two identical clones of a macaque monkey, Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, were created by researchers in China. Just last year, Chinese scientists reported the creation of five identical cloned gene-edited monkeys, using the same cloning technique as for Dolly and Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua.

There have also been attempts to clone extinct species back into existence. The most famous attempt was in 2009, when Spanish scientists announced the cloning of the Pyrenean ibex, a form of wild mountain goat, which was officially declared extinct in 2000. Although the newborn ibex died shortly after birth due to physical defects, it is the first time an extinct animal has been cloned, and may open doors for saving endangered and newly extinct species by resurrecting them from frozen tissue.

International Mother Language Day

In honor of International Mother Language Day—created to promote linguistic diversity and preservation—check out this beautiful and very detailed chart of the world’s languages. A lot of the data might surprise you!

It’s too big too fit here, but below is a little snapshot to give you an idea.

Here are some fun and colorful language infographics that do fit here!

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As the name suggests, the massive Indo-European family includes every language from northern India through Iran and nearly all of Europe between Portugal and Russia (with Hungarian, Estonian, and Finnish being notable exceptions).

The language with the most speakers is, probably not surprisingly, English; about 15 percent of humanity can speak!

However, the vast majority of people who speak English learn it as a second language (as you might have noticed with the top infographic). Here are the languages with the most native speakers compared to second language (2L) speakers:

Here’s an interesting breakdown from the source:

Nearly 43% of the world’s population is bilingual, with the ability to switch between two languages with ease.

From the data, second language (L2) speakers can be calculated by looking at the difference between native and total speakers, as a proportion of the total. For example, 66% of English speakers learned it as a second language.

Swahili surprisingly has the highest ratio of L2 speakers to total speakers—although it only has 16 million native speakers, this shoots up to 98 million total speakers. Overall, 82% of Swahili speakers know it as a second language.

Swahili is listed as a national or official language in several African countries: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s likely that the movement of people from rural areas into big cities in search of better economic opportunities, is what’s boosting the adoption of Swahili as a second language.

Indonesian is another similar example. With a 78% proportion of L2 speakers compared to total speakers, this variation on the Malay language has been used as the lingua franca across the islands for a long time. In contrast, only 17% of Mandarin speakers know it as a second language, perhaps because it is one of the most challenging languages to learn

Tragically, the U.N. has good reason to dedicate a day for the preservation of languages: The 100th most common language is “Sanaani Spoken Arabic”, spoken primarily in Yemen by around 11 million people. Yet there are a total of 7,111 languages still spoken today, meaning the vast majority of them—all but 100—have less than 11 million speakers.

In fact, approximately 3,000 all languages (40 percent) are at risk of being lost, or are already in the process of dying out today. (By one estimate, a language dies every two weeks.) Fortunately, growing awareness and advanced technology are helping to document and preserve these unique aspects of human existence, and all the unique ideas, stories, and concepts they each contain.

Happy Birthday to Mir

On this day in 1986, the Soviet Union launched Mir, the first modular space station, the largest spacecraft by mass at that time, and the largest artificial satellite until the International Space Station (ISS) in 1998.

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Assembled in orbit from 1986 to 1996, the station was the result of efforts to improve upon the Soviet Salyut program, which produced history’s first space station. It served as a microgravity research laboratory where crews conducted experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, and spacecraft systems, all with the ultimate goal of preparing humanity for the permanent occupation of space.

Through the “Intercosmos” program, Mir also helped train and host cosmonauts from other countries, including Syria, Bulgaria, Afghanistan, France, Germany, and Canada.

Mir was the first continuously inhabited long-term research station in orbit and held the record for the longest continuous human presence in space at 3,644 days (roughly 10 years), until it was surpassed by the ISS in 2010. It also holds the record for the longest single human spaceflight, with Valeri Polyakov spending 437 days and 18 hours on the station between 1994 and 1995.

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This is all the more remarkable considering that Mir lasted three times longer than planned, and even survived the Soviet Union itself, which collapsed just years after it was launched. The fact that Russia managed to keep it afloat despite its tumultuous post-Soviet transition speaks to both ingenuity and the goodwill of global partners like NASA.

In fact, the U.S. had planned to launch its own rival station, Freedom, while the Soviets were working on Mir-2 as a successor. But both countries faced budget constraints and a lack of political will that ultimately quashed these projects. Instead, the erstwhile rivals came together through the Shuttle–Mir, an 11-mission space program that involved American Space Shuttles visiting Mir, Russian cosmonauts flying on the Shuttle, and an American astronaut flying aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for long range expeditions aboard Mir.

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With various other nations, from Canada to Japan, also cancelling their own space station programs due to budget constraints, Russia and the U.S. soon brought them into the fold to create a new international space station—today the ISS we all know and love.

Thus, by the time the aging Mir was finally cut loose and allowed to deorbit in 2001, the ISS had already begun taking occupants, building upon the old station’s technical, scientific, and political legacy. (In fact, Russia has contributed most portions of the ISS after the U.S., and both its spaceport and its spacecraft serve as the primary—and for many years, only—source of crew and supplies.)

In its detailed tribute to Mir, NASA notes its importance to all of humanity as a milestone for human space exploration:

“The Russian Space Station Mir endured 15 years in orbit, three times its planned lifetime. It outlasted the Soviet Union, that launched it into space. It hosted scores of crewmembers and international visitors. It raised the first crop of wheat to be grown from seed to seed in outer space. It was the scene of joyous reunions, feats of courage, moments of panic, and months of grim determination. It suffered dangerous fires, a nearly catastrophic collision, and darkened periods of out-of-control tumbling.

Mir soared as a symbol of Russia’s past space glories and her potential future as a leader in space. And it served as the stage—history’s highest stage—for the first large-scale, technical partnership between Russia and the United States after a half-century of mutual antagonism.”

Despite all the geopolitical rivalry and grandstanding that motivated incredible breakthroughs like Mir (and for that matter the Moon landing), the value and legacy of these achievements go far beyond whatever small-mindedness spurred them. Wrapped up in all this brinkmanship was—and still is—a vision of progress for all of humanity.

A fun note about the name: The word mir is Russian for “peace”, “world”, or “village”, and has historical significance: When Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom (virtual slavery) in 1861, freeing over 23 million people, mir was used to describe peasant communities that thereafter managed to actually own their land, rather than being tied to the land of their lord.

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia.

How Globalization Vanquished a Scourge of Humanity

On this day in 1979, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) certified that its efforts led to the global eradication of smallpox, the only human infectious disease to date to have been completely eradicated.

This millennia-long scourge of humanity was responsible for 300 million deaths in the 20th century alone, and even in the early 1950s an estimated 50 million cases occurred worldwide annually, with a mortality rate of about 30 percent.

Like so many examples of human progress, this remarkable achievement was a product of globalization and international collaboration.

The Chinese developed the earliest recorded form of inoculation in the 16th century, and possibly as early as the 10th century. Smallpox scabs from the infected would be ground up and blown them up the noses of healthy people. They would then develop a mild form of the disease and become immune to it. While 0.5-2.0 percent would die, this was far less than the usual 20-30 percent rate of a full-blown infection.

It was not until centuries later, in 1796, that the true vaccine was developed by English physician Edward Jenner. Shortly thereafter the British and Spanish governments implemented vaccination programs both at home and in their colonies worldwide.

The first regional effort to eradicate smallpox was made in 1950 by the Pan American Health Organization founded in 1902 by the U.S. and eleven countries in the hemisphere. The campaign succeeded in wiping out the disease across the Americas in all but four countries.

The first global effort came in 1958 at the urging of Russian virologist Viktor Zhdanov, who called on member states of the WHO to act. At the time, smallpox was still killing 2 million people every year. After initial delays and failures, in 1966 an American-led international team was formed solely to eliminate smallpox, and one year later the WHO contributed $2.4 million annually to the effort, utilizing a new disease method advocated by Czech epidemiologist Karel Raška.

The WHO established a vast network of consultants who assisted countries in setting up surveillance and containment activities. Initially, vaccines were donated overwhelmingly by Russia and the U.S., but by the early 1970s, more than 80 percent of all vaccines were produced in developing countries.

The Asian Giants Leading the Fight Against Climate Change

NASA finds that Earth is greener than two decades ago thanks mostly to China and India—the world’s two most populous countries, which together make up 36% of humanity.

Despite being considered bad actors in environmental policies and climate change reduction, both nations have significantly ramped up efforts to be more eco-friendly; for example, India has engaged in record tree planting, with 800,000 Indians planting 50 million trees in just 24 hours.

The European Union and Canada have also seen significant improvements in this area. The U.S. ranks seventh in the total growth in vegetation percent by decade.

Although not mentioned in the study, Ethiopia, which is the world’s 12th most populous countries, has entered the fray in reforestation, beating India’s already-astounding record by planting 350 million trees in one day.

Bear in mind that a country that largely kept its forests and vegetation intact would appear to perform worse in re-vegetation than a country that had heavily deforested and thus has more room to grow.

These efforts are far from token: Research suggests that planting trees—lots of them—can significantly help mitigate the effects of climate change, to say nothing of their contributions to human well being.

If these two heavily populated and developing countries can find the will and resources to pull this off—despite the heavy demands to bring economic prosperity to their people—there is some hope, and certainly no excuse.

Source: Forbes

The Groundbreaking But Largely Forgotten Apollo 8 Mission

On this day in 1969, the U.S. launched Apollo 8, the second manned spaceflight mission in the Apollo space program and the first crewed launch of the Saturn V rocket. Astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders became the first humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit, see all of Earth, orbit another celestial body, see the far side of the Moon, witness and photograph an “Earthrise” (first photo), escape the gravity of another celestial body (the Moon), and reenter Earth’s gravitational well. Apollo 8 was also the first human spaceflight from the Kennedy Space Center, located adjacent to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Originally planned as a test of the Apollo Lunar Module, since the module was not yet ready for its first flight, the mission profile was abruptly changed in August 1968 to a more ambitious flight to be flown in December. Thus, the crew led by Jim McDivitt crew, who were training Apollo Lunar Module, instead became the crew for Apollo 9, while Borman and his men were moved to the Apollo 8 mission. This meant the new Apollo 8 crew had two to three months’ less training and preparation than originally planned, not to mention having to take up translunar navigation training. The crew themselves believed there was only a 50% chance of the mission succeeding.

Fortunately, things went off without a hitch: after almost three days, Apollo 8 reached the Moon. The crew orbited the Moon ten times in 20 hours, during which they made a Christmas Eve television broadcast in which they read the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis—at the time the most watched TV program ever. (In fact, it is estimated that one out of four people alive at the time saw it either live or shortly after.) Even the Chairman of the Soviet Interkosmos program was quoted describing the flight as an “outstanding achievement of American space sciences and technology”.

Although largely forgotten today, Apollo 8 was seen as the joyful culmination of a tumultuous year, rife with political assassinations, instability, and other tragedies worldwide. For a moment, humanity received a well needed morale boost. the success of the mission paved the way for Apollo 11 to fulfill America’s goal of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. The Apollo 8 astronauts returned to Earth on December 27, 1968, when their spacecraft splashed down in the northern Pacific Ocean. They were later named TIME’s “Men of the Year” for 1968.

The iconic Earthrise photo has been credited as one of the inspirations of the first Earth Day in 1970; it was selected as the first of Life magazine’s 100 Photographs That Changed the World.

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia.

Ancient Links Between Rome and Sri Lanka

It never ceases to amaze me how well connected and globalized the ancients were. We think of globalization as a thoroughly modern phenomenon, yet the seeds of it were planted centuries or even millennia ago, where global connections would have seemed impossible. 

As Science reports:

Visit Mantai, nestled into a bay in northwestern Sri Lanka, and today you’ll see nothing but a solitary Hindu temple overlooking the sea. But 1500 years ago, Mantai was a bustling port where merchants traded their era’s most valuable commodities. Now, a study of ancient plant remains reveals traders from all corners of the world—including the Roman Empire—may have visited or even lived there.

Mantai was a hub on the ancient trade networks that crisscrossed the Indian Ocean and connected the distant corners of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. The port town flourished between 200 B.C.E. and 850 C.E. During that time, it would have been a nexus for the spice trade, which ferried Indonesian cloves and Indian peppercorns to Middle Eastern and Roman kitchens.

[…]

The team also found remains that could link the port city to the ancient Mediterranean world—processed wheat grains dated to 100 to 200 C.E. and grape seeds dated to 650 to 800 C.E. Neither crop can grow in Sri Lanka’s wet, tropical climate, so they had to be imported, possibly from as far as Arabia or the Roman world. Kingwell-Banham says her team is studying the chemical isotopes absorbed by the plants to determine where they were grown.

But no matter their precise origin, the coexistence of rice and wheat is evidence of Mantai’s “cosmopolitan cuisine,” in which both local and foreign foods were eaten, she says. The discovery of wheat and grapes in Mantai “is entirely new,” and shifts the focus on goods transported from South Asia to the Roman world, to goods that went in the other direction,” Coningham says.


While there is no evidence that Roman merchants or other travelers lived in what is today Sri Lanka, it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility: just a few years ago, remains were unearthed in London that appear to be of Chinese origin — and date back to between the third and fifth centuries C.E., when it was the Roman city of Londonium. 

China’s CRISPR Babies

According to Chinese medical documents posted online this month (here and here), a team at the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, has been recruiting couples in an effort to create the first gene-edited babies. They planned to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in order to render the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera.
The clinical trial documents describe a study to employ CRISPR to modify human embryos, then to transfer them into the uterus of mothers and deliver healthy children.

It is unclear if any children have been born. The scientist behind the effort, Jiankui He, did not reply to a list of questions about whether the undertaking had produced a live birth. Reached by telephone he declined to comment. However, data submitted as part of the trial listing shows genetic tests have been carried out on fetuses as late as 24 weeks, or six months. It’s not known if those pregnancies were terminated, carried to term, or are ongoing.

The birth of the first genetically tailored humans would be a stunning medical achievement, for both He and for China. But it will prove controversial, too. Where some see a new form of medicine to eliminate genetic disease, others see a slippery slope to enhancements, designer babies, and a new form of eugenics. 

Source: MIT Technology Review

Happy Birthday to Charles Darwin’s Seminal Work

On this day 1859, “On the Origin of Species” by British naturalist Charles Darwin was first published, selling out by the end of the day. It introduced the scientific theory that populations evolve over generations through a process of natural selection. It presented a body of evidence — gathered from Darwin’s nearly five-year journey around the world on the HMS Beagle — that the diversity of life arose by common descent through a branching pattern of evolution.

While various evolutionary ideas had been proposed since ancient times, there was renewed interest into the 19th century as scientific knowledge increased. (In fact, fellow British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace had independently conceived the theory of evolution through natural selection, publishing his paper on the subject jointly with Darwin in 1858.)

However, Darwin’s book was brilliant in that it was written for lay readers who were not specialists in the subject. Moreover, because he was already a famed scientist, his findings were taken seriously, with the evidence he presented generating intense scientific, philosophical, and religious discussion. Within two decades, there was widespread scientific belief in evolution with a branching pattern of common descent, although people were slow to give much credit to Darwin’s specific finding of natural selection as the primary mechanism.

Indeed, from the 1880s to the 1930s there occurred an “eclipse of Darwinism” , wherein various other mechanisms of evolution were given more credit and Darwin’s fell to the wayside. Only in the 1940s, with the development of the modern evolutionary synthesis — a set of theoretical concepts that tried to harmonize and integrate different factors in evolution — did Darwin’s concept of evolutionary adaptation through natural selection become central to modern evolutionary theory, now becoming the unifying concept of the life sciences (botany, zoology, biology, etc.)

A word about the term theory as used in science: Contrary to popular belief, a theory in science is not the same as how theory is used in everyday language. 

A scientific theory is an explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can be repeatedly tested and verified in accordance with the scientific method (rigorous observation, measurement, evaluation of results, etc.) Theories are tested under controlled conditions and/or through abductive reasoning (logical inference from a set of observations). Scientific theories are established following repeated tests and scrutiny. 

By contrast, outside the scientific context, a theory usually defines explanation that is unsubstantiated or speculative–hence why so many people wrongfully believe that evolutionary is “just a theory” in the vernacular sense, rather than the more rigorously proven scientific kind of theory.