Your Questions Answered, Part 2: General Biotechnology

Hi, everyone! Today I have Part 2 of a genetics/biotechnology/general life science post for you. You can check out Part 1 here. Again, thanks to H. Halverstadt for asking these fantastic questions! Let’s get right to it:

How do you think CRISPR and the gene drive will change the future of genetic engineering?

I am of the opinion that CRISPR is one of the most revolutionary advances in biotechnology of our time. The precision with which genes can be edited due to the specificity of the system is just incredible. I would certainly predict that its popularity (with scientists, not necessarily with the general public, especially the uninformed) will soar in the future, although at least for a short time, “conventional” genetic engineering will still be practiced. But given public outcry about GMOs (even if not warranted—a topic for another time), the ability to improve an organism without bringing in genes from another organism could be more popular and, indeed, simply easier, with fewer steps required.

The gene drive is more specific; I think it has a lot fewer potential applications than CRISPR. Whereas CRISPR can be used with most any current genetic engineering application, I really can’t think of an application for the gene drive that is really different from its current uses, combating insect-vector diseases and pesticide/herbicide resistance. They might try to tackle antibiotic resistance with it next, but I don’t think it will have broad-based applications after that. I would predict that CRISPR will be by far the more influential technique in future.

What gradual, irreversible changes to the human genome might happen?

My best idea is that, according to the principles of natural selection, any beneficial-to-survival changes made to a majority of people by genetic engineering (and propagated through the germ line) could eventually become fixed in the population. I’m going to stop there, since I don’t have quite the human or population genetics knowledge to go on.

Can you see cells from certain people being in high demand? What kind of people?

This is a very interesting question. First, instead of cells, I think we’d be talking about DNA sequences; why bother taking the whole cell if you can get just the DNA you want? I also assume here that the question is asking about acquiring copies of someone else’s DNA for non-gene-therapy genetic enhancement. In this case, I expect that genes from athletic people (there are some known genes related to athleticism—I know of one specific case in which a certain allele of one gene is associated with endurance running) and intelligent people (if such genes could be identified—to my knowledge there are none currently) might be popular for making “designer babies” and so forth.

What laws do you think might be passed to regulate genetic engineering?

I’m not as knowledgeable about the legal side of biotech, but currently, I know labeling laws for GMO foods are a big deal. A quick search revealed to me that GMOs are put through testing processes by a few federal agencies before being put on the market to determine their safety. It’s conceivable that a law prohibiting non-gene-therapy engineering of humans could be passed, although presumably not in the kind of society most sci-fi/dystopian writers who read this will be interested in. Besides that, I apologize, but I can’t come up with much.

Is inter-species gene editing something that is possible for humans?

Technically, yes. Ethically, it’s complicated. Personally, I don’t see this as acceptable, but I’m sure some bioethicist out there could make the case that improving human welfare by adding nonhuman genes would be worth the (hypothetical) cost in our humanity.  (A technical note: this seems to me to be less gene editing, and more transgenic expression. Gene editing is messing with a gene that’s already there; transgenics are organisms containing genes from other species.)

Do you see genetic engineering ever being something smart high school students can do in their kitchen?

Absolutely. In fact, this kind of thing is happening today among a DIY biologist or “biohacker” movement that believes science shouldn’t be for academia alone. So far, though, they’re not that scary; national and worldwide organizations like DIY Bio ( have been good about organizing events regarding safety and bioethics. It’s not being done to humans, or even vertebrate animals as far as I can tell; there are still too many ethical issues in that area. But yes, as long as you can afford the reagents and equipment, you can genetically engineer a plant or a (nonpathogenic) microbe. I believe even CRISPR is currently accessible for DIY biologists (though it costs about $500—I’m sure the price will go down as it becomes an established part of biotech).

If inter-species gene editing is possible for humans, how about humans and a different category of animals, like birds? 

Again, absolutely; you could put a plant gene in a human cell if you wanted, or vice versa. And I’ve read about glow-in-the-dark animals being created by expressing a jellyfish gene.

Please comment on the feasibility of these fantastical forms of genetic engineering. Winged humans, mermaids, elves, centaurs, giants, dwarves, humans able to breathe lower oxygen air. Do you think any other traits would bleed through? (Like for example, if winged humans had eagle genes, would they have other eagle traits as well?)

First, let me say that “dwarves” already exist; we know them as “midgets.” There are a variety fo forms of dwarfism, some dominant, some recessive, but none require genetic engineering. By “elves” I assume you mean basically humans with pointed ears. I expect this would most easily be done surgically.

As for “giants,” height is an extremely complex trait. It is quantitative, meaning that it follows a bell-curve distribution in the population, and there are currently thought to be about 700 genes that influence it. So engineering really tall people could be possible, but I suspect it would be inefficient in the incredible amount of effort it would take. Here is my source ( for that, and I recommend you look up more detailed information on that trait if it’s something you’re interested in using in your story. I just don’t know enough about it to be of much help.

The others would be difficult, but theoretically doable in the far future given a masterful understanding of cellular physiology and probably lots of trial and error. For the humans with animal parts (winged, merpeople, centaurs), geneticists would need an almost perfectly complete understanding of development, which, once again, is incredibly complicated and controlled by many, many genes. It is possible that cells could be induced (“programmed”) to differentiate in such a way as to generate animal limbs on a human body, or to replace human limbs with animal ones, but this would also likely require detailed knowledge of the role of epigenetics in development, and complete knowledge of both human and animal development, which would simply take a very long time to achieve. And even then, it’s completely possible that scientists assembling and applying all this knowledge could miss something essential and make some terrible mistakes. Not to mention all the trial and error—what if a limb grew in the wrong place? etc. So, possible, but not probable to begin with, and would need to be masterfully executed.

The “bleeding through” of other traits mentioned in this question is, I would say, almost certainly not realistic. Giving someone wings will not automatically give them, say, sharp eyesight; that would be controlled by other genes (as well as environmental factors). It makes for interesting fiction, but as far as I know, there is no scientific basis for it.

As for the last one on the list, the pertinent process is cellular respiration. You would need to somehow increase the efficiency of this (again) complex process, which is only 39% efficient at capturing the energy in glucose into ATP (look up the basics of the process). I will say tentatively that this could be one of the more feasible things on this list, if only because cellular respiration is already fairly well understood (i.e. it’s not one of the great mysteries of our time) and preliminary studies could be carried out with bacterial or yeast cultures before progressing to human and mouse cultures, mouse trials, and finally human trials.

Here, to make a long answer longer, I want to make a general note about the approval process for human studies. I feel that the “evil scientist does unethical experiments on humans” trope is both overused and inaccurate. Every university, as far as I know, has an Institutional Review Board (IRB) that convenes solely for the purpose of evaluating and approving human-subject studies. This applies not only to clinical trials, but to interviews and surveys in psychology studies, and even to education studies that take class data and use it for research. Even if there is no perceptible risk at all, researchers are absolutely required to provide the subjects with knowledge about risks, so that they can be informed when they sign the form they must sign (even for a harmless survey!). This applies very much more to genetic engineering and so forth. Under this system, it’s very difficult to conduct an unethical study regarding human subjects, and unless social mores shifted in the future, it’s conceivable that the system will stay like this, making it difficult for any of these ideas to get off the ground, due to possible unforeseen consequences of the alterations.

If yes for the above, would reversal be possible, not just for the offspring but for the person in question? For example, if a winged human wanted to be a regular human again, would she be able to be one after extensive surgery and gene therapy?

I would say yes, although it’s completely a guess since I’m not a medical expert. The gene therapy might not even be necessary; though the genes might still be in the rest of her body, if they weren’t being expressed, she could be a “normal” human with nonhuman DNA, as long as her wings were removed. My bet is that the removal could be done with a surgical procedure (albeit complicated, probably, to remove the whole wing skeletal structure).



Your Questions Answered, Part 1: Biomedical

Hey, everyone! A couple weeks ago, I put out a call for questions from writers about sci-fi genetics things. Genetics and biotechnology are becoming really popular in science fiction, going right along with the scientific revolution they’re currently undergoing, and as a genetics major, I really like to see these topics accurately portrayed in fiction. Thank you so much to Victoria Howell and H. Halverstadt for asking these questions!

Is it possible in the future that a compound could be invented to speed up healing of all tissues?

The short answer is: anything’s possible, right? Actually, tissue regeneration, which is kind of similar to this question, is becoming a big thing; I knew someone once who was applying to a tissue regeneration master’s program at Brown University. As this article explains, though, speed healing is a tradeoff for accuracy in rebuilding tissues (the article also has some other great thoughts about regeneration, more than I can tell you, if anyone’s interested).

How do you think people in the future would respond physiologically to bacterial and viral infections?

I would say essentially the same way they do today, and presumably the same way they’ve been responding for thousands of years. Evolution (or adaptation, if you prefer) is a really slow process. It’s very difficult to imagine that, even in a thousand years, humans will have evolved something radically different from the current immune system; think of the expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” (But if a really aggressive disease swept through and wiped out everyone who couldn’t cope with it . . . who knows?)

In a society where human genetic engineering is commonplace, how do you think sickness would be affected? What kind of diseases can’t be eradicated by genetic engineering or vaccines?

This is a difficult question. In theory, humans could master the incredibly complex immune system and ramp it up somehow by genetic engineering, but that’s a far-off possibility. I don’t think genetic engineering would impact infectious diseases so much as terminal illnesses, and certainly genetic diseases. (Sure, if someone had a genetic predisposition to an infectious disease, someone could use gene therapy to reduce their risk of that disease, but I’ve actually never heard of a case like that.)

As far as eradication, some kinds of diseases are easier to eradicate than others. Smallpox was a good candidate for eradication for a couple reasons: 1) it has no animal vector (i.e. doesn’t spend part of its life cycle in an animal or an insect somewhere, which makes diseases very difficult to control—think malaria), and 2) when you’ve had smallpox once, you don’t get it again. Anything that doesn’t fit these criteria (which is a lot of diseases!) is difficult to eradicate, although the gene drive is being tested against malaria and other mosquito-vector diseases (see this post). Any kind of parasite (think tapeworm) could probably be eradicated with good living conditions (you don’t hear about Americans getting parasitic worms, do you? But they’re all over third-world countries). So bottom line, it’s hard to say, but it really depends on the kind of disease, what resources are available, and how much time is available to develop those resources.

What are the possibilities of a pandemic happening?

So a “pandemic” is defined as a disease outbreak that becomes prevalent over an entire country or internationally. This actually has happened and will probably happen again; H1N1 (swine flu), Ebola, HIV, and (I believe) Zika all count as pandemics. What I think this question is actually getting at is the probability of a world-decimating pandemic, and that’s hard for me to say with my limited medical knowledge. My guess is that it could happen, and if it did, it would devastate third-world countries with few public health efforts first, and unless it was an extraordinarily fast-spreading pathogen, advanced countries like the US would have plenty of time to prepare vaccines and minimize cases.

Cyber limbs are becoming more common every day. What limitations might someone with cyber technology face?

This is really more a computer science thing, as far as I can tell, but I’ll do my best to give thoughts from the biology side—just take everything I say here with a grain of salt. J So my guess is that cyber limbs would require some kind of wiring into the brain, for starters, and that would require some really tough, non-rustable wires (they would have to be metal coated in nontoxic plastic or something). Also, the body often rejects foreign objects, like nonsimilar organ transplants, as being “nonself,” causing the immune system to go on full attack mode and eventually making the person very sick. I expect this would happen with cyber technology as well. (I’ve actually heard of research projects dealing with the difficulty of creating bioadhesives compatible with the body, for transplants and what have you.) So my guess is most of the problems would be during the implantation phase.

Do you see new disease mutations happening to replace any that are eradicated? What kind of diseases do you think they would be, and how do you think people in this future world would physiologically respond to them?

To the first part of the question, I say absolutely. Disease organisms, like all organisms, mutate all the time. To give some background information, the average error rate per DNA replication cycle (which is all the mutation rate is, really) is one error per 106-108 nucleotide base pairs. That’s one error per 1 million-100 million bases, which is pretty low, really, but when you consider how large the genome is, and how many copies of the genome are present in multicellular organisms, it’s staggering. Taking the 100 million number for the human body, 37.2 trillion cells in the body, and a genome of about 3 billion bases, that comes out to about 1.1 quadrillion mutations in the human body every cell cycle, which is staggering! The moral of the story is, mutations happen in every organism, all the time, so yes, new disease mutations could certainly happen, whether in bacteria, viruses, or fungi.

With regards to human disease response physiology, humans aren’t exactly my specialty, but I expect it would be much the same as today. Evolution is a really slow process, unless humans sped it up by somehow engineering themselves with better immune systems, which is theoretically possible, but I’ve heard the immune system is so complex that I doubt this would be feasible without a technological breakthrough similar to that of next-generation sequencing (which revolutionized genetics and actually created the whole new field of genomics).

How do you think aging would be affected by genetic engineering and advanced medicine?

This is an intriguing and highly relevant question. Aging is one of the great scientific mysteries of our time, and as you can imagine, there are many scientists out there who are devoted to conquering it. To give some background, there are several current hypotheses about how aging happens. First, and perhaps most prevalently, the telomere theory: telomeres are the ends of our chromosomes, which shorten with each successive DNA replication. There is an enzyme called telomerase which re-lengthens them, but eventually, as we age, our telomeres shorten further and further, and the theory is that this contributes to the decline of our cells as we age. (This hypothesis is supported by the fact that cancer cells’ and germ-line cells’ telomeres don’t shrink at all.) Another hypothesis is called “antagonistic pleiotropy,” the idea of mutations accumulating in body cells (see above question), eventually reaching a detrimental level. Of course, one’s environment also plays into aging; people who eat healthy and so forth “age better” than those who don’t.

With that very long background discussion, we can get to some of my educated guesses. Perhaps humans would be able to engineer some kind of hyperactive telomerase to prevent the degradation of telomeres, or an extra-corrective DNA polymerase that could go back and fix its mistakes at a higher rate than normal DNA pol. And it might eventually be considered a form of gene therapy to go back and “fix” a person’s aged genes and try to make them younger again (although it’s a long shot that this would work, in my opinion). Environmental factors, of course, can always be improved; good diets, for example, might become more prevalent in the future.


That’s it for me today!

What do you think? Does this apply to any of your writing? Have you thought about these questions before? Do you have any follow-up questions? (I might not be able to answer them all, but I’ll give it my best shot!) Tell me in the comments!

The Daily Quote Challenge

Hi, folks! Just a quick note before we begin. April is going to be a weird month for blog scheduling. I’ve decided to make my genetics/biotech Q&A into two posts on the 15th and 22nd, since I have several questions accumulated in different categories. And I had a plan for today, but since I’m staring down at a pile of lab reports, exams, and research for next week, I decided to scrap my normal science post and go with a quick short thing. There will sadly be no book review this month (I was going to review The Double Helix by James Watson, but I don’t have much time to try to remember what I thought of it . . . write reviews ahead of time, people).

So, onward! Today I’m going to do a tag that Victoria Grace Howell tagged me for a couple months ago, and I just never got around to it. I do want to thank her for tagging me, though. This looks like it should be fun. 🙂

The Rules:

  1. Thank the person who nominated you.
  2. Nominate 3 new bloggers every day.
  3. Post a new quote every day for three consecutive days. (Like Victoria, I’m just going to change this to posting three quotes all at once and tag a couple bloggers.)

My outlining-stage WIP tentatively titled This Hidden Darkness particularly lends itself to finding quotes for writing inspiration, so the three quotes shared here are all related to this book. So here they are!

Faith is the antidote for fear. —Russell M. Nelson #LDS:

Great Inspirational Quotes you are going to love pictures 017:


The Nominees:

  1. Olivia @ Story Matters
  2. Maggie @ Maggie’s Musings

And that’s it for me today!

Have you ever done this tag? What is a quote that fits your WIP? Do any of these work for your WIP as well as mine? Tell me in the comments!

Story Starters #8: Pride and Prejudice

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

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Good morning, all, and happy April! It’s snowing here in New Hampshire, which makes it a good day to analyze the beginning of a book. Fortunately, that’s always what I do on the first Saturday of the month. And today, I have an excellent beginning to analyze. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen has one of the most memorable first lines in literature. I’m excited to take a closer look!

  • It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Apart from last month’s look at The Fellowship of the Ring, we haven’t seen any one-line opening paragraphs in this series. And this one has a lot more punch than Tolkien’s (no offense to Tolkien, of course; his was meant to be less, well, punchy). It sets the tone of the book immediately; any of you who are familiar with Pride and Prejudice will know that it’s all about romance and marriage. The omniscient narrator, probably much more common in 19th-century fiction than now, lets us know right off what kind of book we are reading. That’s always helpful; that way, the people who read the book are those who really want to read it. Similarly, the book is true to the expectations set by the first line; Austen does not mislead the reader. As writers, it’s not a good idea for us to mislead the reader; they tend to get annoyed by that and stop reading.
  • At this point you’re probably thinking: “Those are all great points, Anna, but we still haven’t discussed what makes it so memorable.” Very true, friends. What makes this line so oft-quoted, especially such a wordy line in a non-wordy age? Personally, I put this down to Austen’s tongue-in-cheek sarcasm. Men must want wives, mustn’t they? . . . At least according to the neighbors with eligible daughters. And so the story begins. It’s so subtly stated in this line that it could be lost on modern readers, and it’s hard to put a finger on exactly how she’s being sarcastic, but it’s there, and at least to me, it’s always come across. This is Austen’s brilliance: she succinctly states the whole substance of her novel in one prim, carefully crafted line, still quoted today.

That’s it for me today! I’ll see you all next week.

What do you think? Have you read Pride and Prejudice? Do you find this line memorable? What do you think of one-line opening paragraphs? Would you add anything to my analysis? Tell me in the comments!

A Call for Questions: Genetics and Writing

Hi, everybody! It’s the end of March, and April is a fifth-Saturday month, so I’m planning something special for that day. Genetics and biotechnology seem to be big premise concepts in science fiction right now (not surprising, since they’re currently undergoing a revolutionary rise), and as a genetics major, I know a bit more about these topics than most people. Further, I really like to see these things accurately represented in fiction.

This leads to the subject of today’s post. If you are a sci-fi writer, or any other kind of writer, and want to know more about something in your book, please comment with a question about genetics or biotech, what scientists do all day, what techniques are used in labs, or anything else related that you can think of. I’m happy to help with book research, and all questions will be answered in a Q & A style post on this topic on April 22nd.

So feel free to ask away!

What questions do you have? I’m eager to see them. Leave them in the comments!

My Life This March: In Which I Do Lots of Science and Celebrate a Blogoversary

Hey, everybody! It’s the last Saturday of the month, time to wrap up what I did this month. March was kind of crazy for me, and I can’t even remember most of what happened, but here are some of the major things.

Mostly, this month has been full of school. I’m taking 19 credits this semester, rather than the usual 16, and four of my five classes have associated labs. Don’t get me wrong; I love school, and it’s great to finally be taking advanced genetics courses. It’s just been crazy taking that many credits and squeezing in time in the lab.

One of the major things I’ve been doing this month is writing a 12-page proposal for my summer research project. I really thank God that He gave me the inclination to write in my childhood and that I’ve practiced enough that I can now write what everybody said was a pretty killer proposal. But it wasn’t without its difficulties. There are enough articles written on the role of polyamines in rice to fill a two-volume encyclopedia, and I had to boil that down into five pages for the literature review part. But it worked out in the end, thank God, and I was able to submit it for my funding request. We’ll see what happens!

Just because I hadn’t finished the proposal didn’t mean I couldn’t start my research. I’ve been spending a few hours every week in the lab, growing rice and, this week, starting tissue cultures. I’m really excited to try to make this work and to present my preliminary data next month.

Because of the general madness, I didn’t get much writing done this month. I think I picked at Circle of Fire maybe four times, but progress is progress, right? I also haven’t thought much about This Hidden Darkness, which was supposed to be my secondary project, but that’s because I’ve decided to treat my “break” from the Windsong storyline as one long brainstorming session. This may even involve a prequel that won’t make it into the main storyline. So far, I’ve done some thinking about villain motivations and being more creative with my worldbuilding.

Also, this month marks my first “blogoversary”–I’ve been blogging for a year! Yay! *throws confetti* I’ve really enjoyed having this blog since I started it last March. I love interacting with everyone who reads, likes, and comments, and writing about random science and book things that I enjoy makes a great little break from studying every week. I definitely plan to keep it up further this year. Stick around; I have some good things in the works!

So that’s my month in a nutshell; how was yours? Did you do anything exciting, or was it pretty much the usual? If you have a blog, when’s your blogoversary? How much writing did you do this month? Have you ever done a research project? Share in the comments!

What I’m Reading: Starlighter by Bryan Davis

Hello, everyone! It’s the third Saturday of the month, and that’s book review day. I read this book a couple months ago, mostly on a flight from Georgia to New Hampshire, so this review is really long overdue. But here we are!

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Information for Readers

Genre: Christian Fantasy

Age Level: YA

Content? Only a little; some blood. No swearing or anything like that.

The Story: Sixteen-year-old Jason Masters has always doubted the stories of humans kidnapped by dragons and enslaved in another world. But when his brother Adrian leaves to rescue them, Jason is framed for murder and must go after him. In the other world, Koren, a young woman enslaved by dragons, discovers her special abilities and a mysterious black egg prophesied to be the doom of humans. Now, Jason and Koren must work together to free the slaves and fight the dragons’ tyranny.

This was a very cool premise, and enough of it was left at the end that I really need to read the three sequels and find out what happens. This was just the beginning of the story, but it was a great start.

The Characters: I really enjoyed the characters in this book. Jason, Randall, Elyssa, Tibalt, Koren, Natalla, Wallace, Arxad, the dragon prince, Magnar, and Zena were all really interesting. Tibalt provided great comic relief. My favorite character was probably Jason; I enjoyed his heroic idealism. I liked all the characters though (except Magnar, that evil dragon), and I’m looking forward to watching them develop more in the sequels.

The Writing: Bryan Davis is quite a good writer. I don’t remember catching any grammatical errors or anything like that, which is always good. He’s also really good at deep third-person POV. And the worldbuilding of the two worlds was really interesting, particularly the blend of technology levels in the humans’ world, though this was a bit confusing initially.

Overall: Very good book; looking forward to the sequels! Definitely recommended.

What do you think? Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Do you want to read it? Share in the comments!

Beautiful People March 2017

Hello, everyone! I am actually getting around to participating in Beautiful People this month, as you can see. I wanted to do it last month, but unfortunately ran out of time. So here I am this month!

What is Beautiful People, you ask? Well, it is a monthly link-up hosted by Cait @ Paper Fury and Sky @ Further Up and Further In. Each month, they post ten questions for character development, and all those who want to participate can answer them for their characters on their blogs. So let’s get to it, shall we?

Aletra Kiavar, age 16, mernevna apprentice.

This month, I have a new-ish character to develop. Aletra Kiavar is a mernevna (enchanter) apprentice in the Windsong storyworld. In her time, enchanters are still frowned upon and not able to use their powers openly, and she eventually gets involved in changing that.

  1. What’s their favorite book/movie/play/etc.?

Aletra loves books and learning in general, though at the beginning of her story, she has yet to see a real library. She especially loves reading about history and the healing arts

2. Is there anything they regret doing?

She is the youngest of fifteen girls and mostly regrets letting her oldest sisters boss her around for so long before she left home for her apprenticeship.

3. If they were sick or wounded, who would take care of them and how?

Her mentor would probably take care of her, since he’s the only person around. She’s also, as I mentioned earlier, interested in healing and takes care of him, and could probably take care of herself if needed.

4. Is there an object they can’t bear to part with and why?

Aletra’s journal is where she records all her thoughts and observations of the world and things that stick out to her in her learning. She would be horrified to lose it, pragmatically since it would set her intellectual career back quite a bit, and personally since she often puts her thoughts and opinions in as well.

5. What are 5 ways to win their heart (or friendship)?

  • Give her a book (or scroll).
  • Learn that she’s a changeling and not report her to the authorities.
  • Teach her about nature.
  • Be friends with her mentor.
  • Take her traveling to a city.

6. Describe a typical outfit for them from top to bottom.

She usually keeps her hair up in a ponytail to keep it out of her face. Then, she wears a white or light brown dress with a sleeveless bodice laced up over the top. She also has a cloak for when it’s raining. More often than not, she goes barefoot; since she’s a changeling and regenerates fairly quickly, small cuts don’t bother her. She has ankle boots for traveling.

7. What’s their favorite type of weather?

She is fascinated by the unexplained: diseases, ocean tides, and thunderstorms. She often goes outside during thunderstorms and watches the lightning from under the eaves of her home.

8. What’s the worst fight they’ve ever been in?

Before her story, just various scraps with her sisters. The real fight comes later in her story (though I don’t know when or how yet).

9. What names or nicknames have they been called throughout their life?

Mostly just “Aletra,” but later on in her story, one of her friends starts calling her “Thunder Watcher.”

10. What makes their heart feel alive?

Learning, exploring, watching thunderstorms, climbing trees, solving mysteries, and making new friends. She loves activity and constantly wants to do new things.

So that’s Aletra! What did you think of her? Did you do a Beautiful People post this month? (If so, drop the link in the comments!) Are you planning to? Have you done it in the past? Tell me in the comments!

Karpechenko, Polyploidy, and Other Long Words

Greetings, everyone! It’s the second Saturday of the month already, and I am delighted to be here talking about one of my favorite science topics with you. As you may know, or may have guessed from reading my blog and noting the disproportionate amount of genetics posts, I am a genetics major, major DNA nerd, and plant biology minor. I’m going to bring all those things together in this post, so hold on to your hat and let’s have some fun!

As with many of my science posts, our topic today stems from a class I am taking (Evolutionary Genetics of Plants, in this case). My teacher told us a story, which I thought was cool, so I am now going to repeat it to you.

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The story was about this guy.

The guy in the picture above supplies the first of the long words in this post: his name, Georgii Dmitrievich Karpechenko. As you may have guessed, he was Russian. Specifically, he was a Russian botanist and plant cytologist (cell biologist) who did some interesting experiments with plant breeding. Let’s explore them.

Presumably, Karpechenko enjoyed both cabbages and radishes, or else he just wanted to contribute to improved agricultural productivity in his nation of limited farmland, or possibly both. Either way, he wanted to create a plant that produced a cabbage in the shoot and a radish in the root. The logical way to do this (his reasoning presumably went) was to cross a cabbage with a radish.

Here we have to back up a bit and get into some more long words. Cabbage and radish are different species, but not only that, they are in different genera (the first word of a scientific name); cabbage is Brassica oleracea and radish is Raphanus sativus. Usually, the definition of a species is “a population which is reproductively isolated (i.e. can’t breed) from others.” Of course, the only thing in science with no exceptions is that everything has an exception, and Karpechenko was indeed able to breed his cabbage and radish (for reasons we haven’t talked about in class yet) and produce a hybrid plant.

Well, unfortunately for Karpechenko, his hybrid didn’t look anything like either a cabbage or a radish. It was just a weed. Worse yet, it was a sterile weed; it produced seed pods, but no seeds. Fortunately for botany and genetics, though, Karpechenko didn’t give up on his experiments just yet. He kept observing his plants and noticed one day that a branch of one of them was producing seeds, even though the rest of this plant continued to be sterile. Furthermore, when he planted the seeds, they gave rise to fertile (if weedy) plants, and a new head-scratcher: how could this be?

Backing up again: The fertility of plants (or any organism, really) arises from a special cell division process called meiosis, which some may have learned about in high school biology. Most organisms are diploid, that is, they have two complete sets of chromosomes. For example, humans have 23 chromosomes in a set, and a total of 46 chromosomes in two sets. It works the same way for cabbage and radish; each has 9 chromosomes in a set, and 18 chromosomes total. This comes from reproductive biology; in any diploid organism, one of the sets of chromosomes comes from each parent. So in order to reproduce, plants (and animals, and fungi) have to produce haploid gametes, “sex cells” with only one set of chromosomes apiece. (In humans, we know them better as the sperm and the egg.) This is what meiosis is all about.

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A summary figure of meiosis. Note the homologous chromosomes separating into different cells; don’t worry about the different colors.


In order to reduce the chromosome set number, or “ploidy,” from diploid to haploid, chromosomes line up in matched (“homologous”) pairs and separate into two new cells (see the figure above). These cells then undergo further division to form gametes, the details of which we won’t worry about.

Now let’s think about Karpechenko’s sterile hybrid. This little weed had one set of chromosomes from cabbage and one set from radish, which enabled it to grow and function. However, when it came time for meiosis, it turned out that radish and cabbage chromosomes were different enough that they wouldn’t pair and divide into different cells, and no gametes were formed, which ultimately meant no seeds.

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Karpechenko’s experiments shown as seed pods. “Amphidiploid” is the same thing as tetraploid.


So what about that branch that became fertile? Well, it turns out that plants sometimes spontaneously undergo whole-genome duplications, in which, just as it sounds like, the entire genome of the plant is duplicated in the cell. (This happens routinely before cell division, but then it all divides into two cells. In whole-genome duplication, what happens is that the cell thinks it’s divided, but actually hasn’t, and now has four sets of chromosomes rather than two.) This happened in Karpechenko’s plant, in a branch precursor cell, and gave rise to a tetraploid branch, having four sets of chromosomes, two from radish and two from cabbage. Now, suddenly, all chromosomes had homologs to pair with in meiosis, and seeds could form.

Karpechenko had discovered polyploidy, the state of having more than two chromosome sets, which turns out to be a rather important phenomenon in plants. Besides generating greater genetic diversity, helpful to plant breeders, polyploidy results in more DNA, bigger nuclei, bigger cells, and eventually, bigger, more robust plants overall. It’s so useful that plant breeders sometimes induce polyploidy with chemicals to help in developing new varieties. Many important plants, such as wheat and canola, are polyploids.

What happened to Karpechenko himself? Well, in the early 20th century, the Soviet Union’s leadership was not big on genetics. In 1941, Karpechenko was arrested on a false charge and executed, but not before making a major contribution to botany and genetics.

What do you think? Have you heard of Karpechenko before? What about polyploidy? (Isn’t it cool?) Do you have any questions? Tell me in the comments!

Story Starters #7: The Fellowship of the Ring

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

Good morning, everyone, and happy March! This month marks my first anniversary of blogging here at The Story Scientist, and I thought I’d recall where I began, with a book quote analysis of The Fellowship of the Ring. Today, I have rather less of the book to analyze for you all, since the first paragraph is only one sentence, albeit a long one. So let’s analyze!

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This is the version that I have.
  • When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton. There’s quite a bit going on in just this one sentence. Firstly, we start with the character of Bilbo Baggins, which makes a good transition into The Lord of the Rings for those who have read The Hobbit. The mention of his “eleventy-first birthday” sets the time of the story as many years after the events of The Hobbit, and the mention of talk and excitement indicates that Bilbo has developed a reputation, which is developed in the next paragraph. And what better way to hook a reader than with talk and excitement? We know something’s going to happen, and setting this sentence as its own entire paragraph gives us a moment to take that in before moving on.

Today’s has been a very short analysis, but really, I love Tolkien (as you may have noticed by my having written two other posts about his books–do check them out if you haven’t read them). And so I leave you until next week.

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What do you think? Have you read The Fellowship of the Ring? (If not, why on earth–I mean, I highly recommend it.) What do you think of its beginning? Are you hooked by this sentence? Do you have anything to add to my analysis? Tell me in the comments!