Monday, October 27, 2014

Evolution's Solutions

Carl Bergstrom (Professor of biology at the University of Washington) and several colleagues published a brilliant article on October 17, 2014, in the leading journal Science on how insights from evolutionary biology could be used to solve an array of major global problems.  Entitled "Applying evolutionary biology to address global challenges," this article offers powerful evolutionary approaches to facing challenges of two types:
The first arises from cancers, pathogens, and pests that evolve too quickly and the second, from the inability of many valued species to adapt quickly enough. Applied evolutionary biology provides a suite of strategies to address these global challenges that threaten human health, food security, and biodiversity.

Evolutionary biological approaches to solving problems merit close attention and wide adoption.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Foxy Phylogenetic Findings

The red fox (Vulpes spp.) is earth's most widely distributed terrestrial carnivore, its natural range encompassing North America, Eurasia, and northern Africa.  Having been introduced Down Under by British settlers, this canine is now also found throughout Australasia.  On September 25, 2014, Mark Statham et al. published a detailed phylogeography of the red fox, which answered several questions biologists have long debated about vulpine origins, evolution, and biogeography.  Their article in the journal Molecular Evolution, entitled "Range-wide multilocus phylogeography of the red fox reveals ancient continental divergence, minimal genomic exchange and distinct demographic histories", includes the following evolutionary insights:
Analyses of 697 bp of mitochondrial sequence in ~1000 individuals suggested an ancient Middle Eastern origin for all extant red foxes and a 400 kya (SD=139 kya) origin of the primary North American (Nearctic) clade. Demographic analyses indicated a major expansion in Eurasia during the last glaciations ( ~50 kya), coinciding with a previously described secondary transfer of a single matriline (Holarctic) to North America. In contrast, North American matrilines (including the transferred portion of Holarctic clade) exhibited no signatures of expansion until the end of the Pleistocene ( ~12 kya).
Samples of nuclear DNA were also sequenced from a subset of the above thousand foxes portions of whose mitochondrial DNA were sequenced.  What emerges are two long-separated phylogenetic lineages of red foxes - one North American and the other Eurasian - with no natural biological truck nor trade between them.  To adapt an observation made by Redd Foxx to make it applicable to the red fox, "Phenotype may be skin deep, but a genotype goes clear to the bone."

Improvements in the speed, efficiency, and cost of automated DNA sequencing increasingly allow huge genomic studies to reveal detailed evolutionary patterns at global scales.  Not only does such research resolve questions about red foxes, it may also shed light on the evolution of our own lineage (e.g., Fu et al. 2013) and disease-causing organisms like Ebola (e.g., Gire et al. 2014).


Friday, October 10, 2014

Seeds Of Discord

Fascinating issues continue to swirl around lawsuits filed against Syngenta for its domestic sales of United States-licensed Agrisure Viptera (MIR162) corn.  The first of these suits, Cargill v. Syngenta, was previously discussed at LEXVIVO ("Growing Influence of Chinese Law").  Syngenta is facing a growing number of lawsuits, including several class actions.   Feed Navigator, a journal that provides "Breaking News on the Global Animal Feed Industry," interviewed me for a story it published on October 10, 2014, entitled "Syngenta case shows US market is not impervious to foreign rules:  legal expert."  One suggestion I made in this article is that, however uncomfortable impingement upon national sovereignty may feel, companies in the United States are likely to come under increasing pressure to comply not simply with domestic regulations, but with regulations of those foreign countries whose markets U.S. companies wish to serve.  And, in doing so, the United States joins almost universal league of countries that have traded sovereignty for market access. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Never Be Royals Suddenly Kings

For 29 years, fans of the Kansas City Royals have been craving "a different kind of buzz."  This year their team finally "cracked the code" by winning a wild-card berth in the Major League Baseball playoffs.  When Lorde wrote her George Brett-inspired megahit song, Royals, most baseball fans outside Kansas City could claim "no postal code envy."  Now, they may regret that they'll "never be royals," while Royals fans get a chance to "live that fantasy."

Friday, September 26, 2014

Saurians Set Sail

The theory of island biogeography posits that the amount of biodiversity - usually species richness - present on a landmass is positively correlated to the area of the landmass and negatively correlated to the distance the landmass lies from other landmasses.  In general, the larger a landmass, the lower the rate at which species tend to go extinct, but the further the landmass is from other source populations, the less likely will be replenishment via immigration.

In an elegant study on the island biogeography of Anolis lizards throughout the Caribbean, Helmus et al. suggest that economics, rather than natural processes, has become a dominant driver of biodiversity.  As they explain,
Economic isolation determines Caribbean biodiversity in the Anthropocene—both exotic and present-day (that is, native + exotic) anole richness were negative functions of economic isolation.
The authors identify commercial shipping as a major culprit for remixing the species complements of islands throughout the Caribbean.  These days, stowaway Anolis lizards seem to be island hopping less on logs or leaves than on massize metal container ships sailing from port to port.  Forget leaping lizards;  sailing lizards may be more accurate.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Growing Influence Of Chinese Law

Imagine a company ("AgCo") complies with all relevant United States laws in inventing, producing, marketing, and selling seeds of an innovative genetically-modified corn plant ("UberCorn") within the United States.  Imagine, further, that farmers buy those seeds to grow corn whose kernels subsequently mix with kernels from other breeds of corn in common storage facilities owned by an agricultural commodities trading company ("TradeCo").  If TradeCo then ships that corn mixture overseas to China, where the entire mixture is banned from importation due to the presence of some UberCorn, does TradeCo have a legitimate cause of action against AgCo for "contaminating" the corn mixture with UberCorn?  Such a drama is currently playing out in the Louisiana 40th Judicial Court Cargill, Inc. filed suit against Syngenta on September 12, 2014, for allegedly violating its duty of care to the corn industry by selling its genetically-modified, insect-resistant Agrisure Viptera (MIR162) corn in the U.S..  I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Reuters' Andrew Chung for an article on this case published on September 16, 2014.  Agrisure Viptera was approved in the U.S. for commercial cultivation in 2010.  However, China has not yet approved the import of this variety of corn.  A state court just west of New Orleans now must grapple with a fascinating legal issue:  can Chinese law trigger liability in the U.S. for actions taken in the U.S. that comply fully with U.S. law?  Like corn, the influence of Chinese law is also growing around the world.  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

On The Up And Up

According to the World Meteorological Organization ("WMO"), 2013 was a record year for atmospheric greenhouse gases.  On September 9, 2014, the WMO GREENHOUSE GAS BULLETIN reported the following:
The latest analysis of observations from the WMO Global Atmosphere Watch Programme shows that the globally averaged mole fractions of CO2, CH4 and N2O reached new highs in 2013, with CO2 at 396.0±0.1 ppm, CH4 at 1824±2 ppb and N2O at 325.9±0.1 ppb. These values constitute, respectively, 142%, 253% and 121% of pre-industrial (before 1750) levels. The atmospheric increase of CO2 from 2012 to 2013 was 2.9 ppm, which is the largest year to year change from 1984 to 2013.
The climate is an extremely complex and dynamic system, so reasons for this recent rapid rise in measured atmospheric greenhouse gases remain poorly understood.  Hypotheses could include limits on the capacities of the oceans or forests to absorb additional carbon dioxide.  Determining the causes of this greenhouse gas spike is devoutly to be wished.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Franklin Finally Found

No one expressed it better than Stan Rogers:
Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage,
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea,
Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage,
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.
On September 9, 2014, just as the snow began to fall in earnest in Resolute, Nunuvut, the government of Canada announced that one of the ships from the ill-fated Franklin Expedition had finally been located.  Although the precise identity of the ship - HMS Erebus or HMS Terror - is unknown as yet, this discovery marks huge progress in solving the mystery of what happened to Sir John Franklin and his crews after they set sail from England in 1845 to find and navigate the Northwest Passage.  They were lost in 1846.  Now we may discover why.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Organ Transplant Crisis

A group of concerned scholars has written "An Open Letter to President Barack Obama, Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Attorney General Eric Holder and Leaders of Congress" on "HOW TO END THE WAIT FOR ORGAN TRANSPLANTS."  I am one of the initiating signers of the letter, which
calls for action to increase kidney donations by implementing pilot studies that will evaluate whether government regulated and provided benefits to donors will result in more kidneys and do so in ways that safeguard the rights and health of donors.
 We hope this initiative may be a step towards helping alleviate the current crisis in organ donation.