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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

A double helical twist to affirmative action

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While the debate about reservations in higher education (mainly the IIT and IIMs) for the so-called ‘backward classes/castes’ rages on back in India, this story in New York Times about genetic testing adds a bizarre dimension to ‘affirmative action‘, reservation practiced American-style.

Alan Moldawer’s adopted twins, Matt and Andrew, had always thought of themselves as white. But when it came time for them to apply to college last year, Mr. Moldawer thought it might be worth investigating the origins of their slightly tan-tinted skin, with a new DNA kit that he had heard could determine an individual’s genetic ancestry.

The results, designating the boys 9 percent Native American and 11 percent northern African, arrived too late for the admissions process. But Mr. Moldawer, a business executive in Silver Spring, Md., says they could be useful in obtaining financial aid.

“Naturally when you’re applying to college you’re looking at how your genetic status might help you,” said Mr. Moldawer…..

(emphasis mine)

If you read the full story, it is not only college admissions, but genetic testing, as provided by certain private companies, is being used to potentially gain employment as minority candidates, claim inheritance rights from way back in the past, and even for immigration issues.

……Israeli authorities have so far denied John Haedrich what he calls his genetic birthright to citizenship without converting to Judaism. Under Israel’s “law of return,” only Jews may immigrate to Israel without special dispensation.

Mr. Haedrich, a nursing home director who was raised a Christian, found through a DNA ancestry test that he bears a genetic signature commonly found among Jews. He says his European ancestors may have hidden their faith for fear of persecution.

Rabbis, too, have disavowed the claim: “DNA, schmeeNA,” Mr. Haedrich, 44, said the rabbi at a local synagogue in Los Angeles told him when he called to discuss it.

Undeterred, Mr. Haedrich has hired a lawyer to sue the Israeli government. As in America, he argues, DNA is widely accepted as evidence in forensics and paternity cases, so why not immigration?

Sounds to me like a perverse satire on the theme of the brilliant science fiction film, GATTACA (don’t you just love it when films have clever titles relating to its theme?). The film showed a future where someone’s career, relationship and in fact their entire destiny is determined by their genes alone. Tying up genetic testing to obtain a slight advantage in college admissions/employment to eugenic pre-determination is probably a bit of a hyperbole. Also, (hopefully) common sense will prevail in college admission boards and when the inheritance and immigration cases mentioned in the story go to court. But with the jury system in the US, you never know – once people start smelling a sense of entitlement, you are opening a whole can of legal worms (consider the recent Vioxx cases).

For the record, I am not against genetic testing to determine your racial composition – evolutionary scientist do this on a regular basis and it helps to push that branch of science forward. I am against using it to claim unfair advantages – racial or genetic profiling under any guise cannot be good in the long term.

As for the debate on affirmative action and reservations – that is a whole different issue to be tackled, if time permits, in a different post.

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Written by BongoP'o'ndit

April 13, 2006 at 7:16 am

Misunderstanding gene patents

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Via Amit Varma’s India Uncut, came accross this article by Michael Crichton in the NYT. Crichton says,

[T]he human genome exists in every one of us, and is therefore our shared heritage and an undoubted fact of nature. Nevertheless 20 percent of the genome is now privately owned. The gene for diabetes is owned, and its owner has something to say about any research you do, and what it will cost you. The entire genome of the hepatitis C virus is owned by a biotech company. Royalty costs now influence the direction of research in basic diseases, and often even the testing for diseases. Such barriers to medical testing and research are not in the public interest. Do you want to be told by your doctor, “Oh, nobody studies your disease any more because the owner of the gene/enzyme/correlation has made it too expensive to do research?”

Now, there can be much debate and there certainly exists grey areas in the field of gene patenting; but, whether intentional or not, Crichton is over-simplifying the issue in this article. No one can hold patents for your ‘natural’ genes (especially your own one which would be unique) – patents are usually granted only for the pure form of a particular gene. The gene has to be isolated (technical term: cloned) from our chromosome, be available in a test-tube and should be able to do something useful (e.g. produce the relevant protein when put into a bacteria) for a patent to be granted. The simple act of dicovery that a particular sequence of genetic material does something (e.g. cause a disease or cause the color of your eyes) will generally not be validated as a patent, at least by the United States PTO. Companies invest considerable money and time in the isolation step and therefore it is really within their right to recover the cost by patenting both the process and the final gene product.
Couple of articles dealing with this issue can be found here and here.

BTW, Amit, in his usual pithy style also says thanks for the little mercies:

And no, no one owns a patent on bad puns.

He would otherwise be paying through his nose for these . ;-)

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

March 20, 2006 at 9:24 am


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….today is National Pi Day !!!

Festivities begin @ 1.59pm (not tough to figure out why !).

Among other activities, you can bring along a homophonic desert (yum yum), sing this Kate Bush Pi song, while waiting for a giant Pi to drop.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

March 14, 2006 at 8:36 am

Posted in Fun, Science

Serendipity strikes again !

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As is well-known, many of the major discoveries in science have been serendipitous – most famously Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin.

A group in Britain has shown that forgeries of paper documents, plastic cards etc can be detected by using a simple laser scanner. The method, published in the latest edition of Nature, takes advantage of the fact that almost all documents ‘contain a unique physical identity code formed from microscopic imperfections in the surface’. This fingerprint can be read by using the phenomenon of laser speckle (in lay terms, scattering of laser light from a surface) with an appropriate scanner. The biggest cost-saving from this technology would be not having to impart an external security tag such a hologram, watermarks, microchip etc. to important documents, currencies, credit cards etc.
So why the title ? As this report on NPR Morning Edition mentions, the researchers were actually scanning a new security chip they had developed, which fell off, exposing the paper underneath it to the laser. To their surprise they found a signal coming from the paper – further investigation led to the discovery that each piece of paper has its own unique ‘roughness’ and hence an unique signal !

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

July 29, 2005 at 9:57 am

A bit of science.

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Came across this blog today and found a link to this old PhysicsWeb article that talks about the 10 most beautiful experiments in Physics. I thought the article was beautifully written as well, especially while pointing out the complexity inherent in most scientific experiments no matter how elegant the interpretation.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

June 30, 2005 at 2:55 pm

Posted in Science

Science Made Stupid

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Hilarious web-site. I loved this one:

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

January 28, 2005 at 2:01 pm

Posted in Fun, Science

Stephen Hawking’s interview

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An interesting interview with Stephen Hawkings in NYT.

Some excerpts:

Are you always this cheerful?

Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.

Seriously, how do you keep your spirits up?

My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.

Do you think people will ever live on a planet besides Earth?

Yes, if we don’t self-destruct first.

What do you and your academic friends make of the debate over embryonic-stem-cell research in this country?

In Britain, like most of the developed world, stem-cell research is regarded as a great opportunity. America will be left behind if it doesn’t change policy.

Could stem-cell research help you at all?

Like Christopher Reeve, I’m very much in favor, but unlike he did, I don’t expect to benefit personally.


Written by BongoP'o'ndit

December 13, 2004 at 3:27 pm

Posted in Life, Science


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During the course of writing my thesis, I was reminded (by my advisor) of this wonderful quote by Mark Twain:

There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.

Grinding through my data – it sounds so true.

(Perhaps the first mention of something remotely related to science on this blog.)

And while we are at it – rephrasing Ernest Rutherford :

“All science is either biophysics or stamp collecting.”

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

October 20, 2004 at 7:32 pm

Posted in Fun, Science


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