The Autism Peril

The latest media frenzy is over reports that Russia had compromising information about Trump’s sexual practices and other sad, bitter, pathetic obsessions. I don’t care. The Trump name is already so thoroughly soiled that the fact that the allegations are entirely plausible tells us all we need to know about the dignity and gravitas the man brings to the office. He has pissed all over our country’s reputation and has already been long known for his pettiness, his cheesiness, and his total lack of class, so it really doesn’t do any more damage to the Trump brand than everything else he has done. In a pissing contest between his crassness and his bedroom habits, the fact that there is a pissing contest at all means he has already lost.

But here’s a different name that is being flushed down the toilet: Kennedy. I grew up when the Kennedy name was almost magical: it was Camelot, it was glamorous liberalism, it was tragedy. And now Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is doing his best to make it synonymous with crankery and quackery and incompetence. Good job, scion of a the John & Robert Kennedy political dynasty!

Anyway, RFK Jr met with Trump — which was troubling enough, especially after Trump had met with Andrew Wakefield as well — and came away with the startling announcement that he was going to chair a commission on vaccination safety and scientific integrity. He is not qualified! His head is packed full of pseudoscientific nonsense on this subject, so we need a stronger word…he is anti-qualified. This is as criminally antithetical to the goal of such a committed as appointing Myron Ebell to head the EPA. It’s a clear signal that Trump intends to wreck preventative medicine in the USA.

Of course, this immediately provoked a sewer overflow of criticism on social media, and we already know how responsive our fickle president-elect is to the noise there, and Trump walked that claim right back. No, RFK Jr will not lead a commission on vaccine safety, but one on autism.

Vaccines, autism, same topic, right? We can tell what kind of bullshit the two of them were slinging in that convo by the fact that they link those two together, when we know from the science that there is no connection between vaccines and autism. We know that Trump is dead wrong on this subject, but he has brought it up repeatedly over the years, and you just know he’s itching to push lies into the science.

Remember when Trump said this in the debates?

I’m totally in favor of vaccines — but I want smaller doses over a longer time.

You are not a doctor, Donald Trump. Neither is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. It was doctors who worked out a vaccine schedule, using empirical data to optimize as best they can. Contrary to your conspiracy theories, doctors also have no vested interest in inducing autism. I can’t even imagine what convoluted reasoning you would invoke in order to invent a connection, but I’m sure you’ve got some stupid, flimsy excuse that won’t hold up under any rational inspection.

But just read Orac’s commentary — he rips the routine nonsense promoted by anti-vaccine ideologues apart. It’s actually easy. What always impresses me is the lack of rigor and the unimaginative repetitiveness of the anti-science advocates. Like creationists, the anti-vaxxers have a limited litany of tropes they repeat endlessly, which makes it easy but dead dreary to shoot them down…but with the awareness that they’ll just ignore the rebuttals and repeat the same ol’ same ol’ all over again.

One more thing I have to mention, though: one part of the anti-vaxxer litany is to deplore the rising tide of terrible, damaged people as a consequence of the autism epidemic. The problem with that, of course, is that it treats autistic people as garbage, and as a plague that must be ended. I know autistic people. You know autistic people. Some of you are autistic. It’s a different way of thinking that can (but doesn’t always) conflict with expected social norms. You might just as well howl in protest at the rise of people who think scientifically, or artistically, or are glibly sociable, or are atheists. What are you going to do, go on a campaign to eradicate poets? I wouldn’t put it past these people who are so quick to demonize others who don’t fit their mold.

Adapt or die. Autistic people are first and foremost people, and if they are increasing in numbers, we need to consider helping society to accommodate itself to them. We can see through the coded language and dog whistles to your true desired solution: you despise and want to eliminate our children.

Whatever happened to Boyan Slat’s test?

Slat was the wunderkind who came up with an idea, using floating booms, to clear the oceans of floating plastic waste. He was mocked by all the scientists who actually knew something about the problem, but hey, this is science. Empirical results trump all. He ran a trial last summer, and if his scheme worked, you know we should all be writing apologies.

He tried a small scale (2 million euros!) test, in a patch of the sea that was calmer and more temperate than the Pacific, where he ultimately hoped to clear up the great Pacific garbage patch. Guess what?

It didn’t work, as expected. It was broken up after 2 months and didn’t collect any garbage.

Man, it sure would have been nice to have to write that apology.

Another example of why basic research matters

Scientists have been working on techniques to treat mitochondrial diseases, and one strategy is to create “3 parent” babies, where the mother’s defective mitochondria are replaced or supplemented in her gametes with mitochondria from another woman, and the gamete is then fertilized with sperm from the father. It works!

In September, reproductive endocrinologist John Zhang and his team at the New Hope Fertility Center in New York City captured the world’s attention when they announced the birth of a child to a mother carrying a fatal genetic defect.

Using a technique called mitochondrial replacement therapy, the researchers combined DNA from two women and one man to bypass the defect and produce a healthy baby boy — one with, quite literally, three genetic parents.

There is, however, a significant possibility of failure.

Earlier this month, a study published in Nature by Shoukhrat Mitalipov, head of the Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, suggested that in roughly 15 percent of cases, the mitochondrial replacement could fail and allow fatal defects to return, or even increase a child’s vulnerability to new ailments.

The findings confirmed the suspicions of many researchers, and the conclusions drawn by Mitalipov and his team were unequivocal: The potential for conflicts between transplanted and original mitochondrial genomes is real, and more sophisticated matching of donor and recipient eggs — pairing mothers whose mitochondria share genetic similarities, for example — is needed to avoid potential tragedies.

This is not at all surprising, and shouldn’t be used as a reason to stop the research. This was expected. Anyone who has studied mitochondrial genetics — and I’m sure this is the case for these researchers as well — knows about dominant negative effects. There are known alleles in mitochondria that are negative, that is they are deleterious to the organelle, and are also dominant, that is, one copy of the of the allele can suppress healthy mitochondria in the same cell. We also know that mitochondria replicate independently of the cell, and that in some cases the defective mitochondria can outcompete and replace the healthy mitochondria. This is the case in, for instance, poky mutants in Neurospora, and petite mutants in yeast.

So, old news. It seems to make the popular press only when it looks like it might affect human beings, though, which is too bad, because awareness of the problem arose from basic cell biology, and will be best solved by experimental work in non-human organisms. Let’s see more funding for yeast and Neurospora and fruit fly and zebrafish research!



That’s no insult, it’s a zebrafish craniofacial development website. It’s cool that it’s managed by my graduate advisor, Chuck Kimmel, but it’s also full of images of zebrafish skulls (fish skulls in general are amazingly beautiful, with all kinds of delicate detail). I’m pining for a confocal microscope of my very own now.

It’s also a subset of FaceBase, an even grander collection of data on craniofacial development in those lesser creatures, humans and mice. If you’re interested in the formation of the head and neck — and you should be, those are complex hotspots for all kinds of developmental disorders — check it out.

I don’t wanna make book recommendations

It’s that time of year when I think everyone got Amazon gift cards and then they go asking me to make book recommendations. It’s hard. Writing a science book is even harder. And there are a lot of bad science books out there.

One problem is that everyone wants the shortcut: there’s a hot new science topic, lots of people are curious about it, they want to know more, the publishers see an opportunity, so they commission a flashy pop sci book that will sate that curiosity. And it’s garbage, because it’s written by people who don’t know the basics, or because it’s written for people who want to hear that the answer is magic. Case in point: there are no good popular books about epigenetics right now, as far as I can see. If it’s got “epigenome” in the title, just scratch it right off your list. This may change, I hope it will change, but it’s an example of a topic where the situation is rather dire. That’s unfortunate, because it’s an important topic.

At the other extreme, there are the textbooks. There is a reason that textbooks exist, and it isn’t just the venality of publishers and the conservative nature of professors: they are dense repositories of basic knowledge. My genetics class uses Klug’s Concepts of Genetics, it’s not light reading, and to get the most out of it you should actually sit down and do the problems at the end of each chapter. Does that sound like fun? How does the $196 price tag sound to you?

There is a sweet spot in popular science writing where the author manages to simultaneously explain the basics and get them right, while also getting the big picture explained in an interesting way. Carl Zimmer consistently hits that target, Sean B. Carroll is good, Adam Rutherford’s Creation does a fine job of covering biotech and the origin of life, Nick Lane is always amazing. The microbiome was one of those buzzwords that spawned a lot of crap books, like the word “epigenetics” now, but Ed Yong rose above the dross and came out with a good general science book on the subject.

But it’s still really difficult to address requests for recommendations. Usually it’s because someone wants an answer that they can digest in a couple of days of light reading, and often, that can’t be done.

The correct answer is that what you need to do is register at the University of Minnesota and sign up for my classes. I’ll whip you into shape in 15 weeks of harsh discipline.

It’s the same old racist genetics

Another domain the alt-right neo-Nazis want to claim for their own is genetics. Sarah Zang has a very good overview of how the deplorables are eyeballing modern genetics and genomics, and mangling it to support their racist theories, titled Will the Alt-Right Peddle a New Kind of Racist Genetics? My only objection would be that this isn’t a new kind of racist genetics at all — it’s the same old garbage, in which they misinterpret results to support their preconceptions. The interesting thing, though, is that geneticists are gearing up to fight back.

Jedidiah Carlson was googling a genetics research paper when he stumbled upon the white nationalist forum Stormfront. Carlson is a graduate student at the University of Michigan, and he is—to be clear—absolutely not a white nationalist. But one link led to another and he ended up reading page after page of Stormfront discussions on the reliability of 23andMe ancestry results and whether Neanderthal interbreeding is the reason for the genetic superiority of whites. Obsession with racial purity is easily channeled, apparently, into an obsession with genetics.

Stormfront has been around since the ’90s, which means it’s been around for the entirety of the genomic revolution. The major milestones in human genetics—sequencing of the first human genome, genetic confirmation that humans came out of Africa, the first mail-in DNA ancestry tests—they’re all there, refracted through the lens of white nationalism. Sure, the commentators sometimes disagreed with scientific findings or mischaracterized them, but they could also be serious about understanding genetics. “The threads would turn into an informal tutoring session and journal club,” observes Carlson. “Some of the posters have a really profound understanding of everyday concepts in population genetics.”

Carlson has been arguing with the bozos on Twitter, and I’ve been occasionally bouncing off them here and there — the “human biodiversity” gang, their intentionally neutral term for pseudo-scientific racism, kinda despises me. Even before I read this article, though, I was working up some new material for the genetics course I’ll be teaching in January specifically to address some of these problems at a fairly basic level.

One concern I’ve had for a while now is that often in undergraduate genetics we’re teaching a kind of simplified Mendelism as a starting point, and in the lab we do crosses that have been time-tested for clarity and consistency. Students start out with this kind of crude beanbag genetics in their heads, which actually is a good beginning point to get the concepts across, but then when we get into real genetics, that is considerably messier and more difficult, they may flounder. At least, that’s been my experience; but we also see it in the general public where they got a bit of Mendelian pea-crossing in high school, and then they hear something about epigenetics and just go off the rails.

This year I think my first class will involve throwing examples at them of unexpected genetics, stuff that doesn’t fit their high-school version, and start ’em out by preparing them to not trust simplistic interpretations, and to realize that Mendel’s results were a starting point for a model. It’ll also help to let them know that they don’t know everything right from the first day.

But then we’ll go right back to Mendel, and work our way up from that foundation to the hard, fun, bewildering stuff. And maybe I should try to include at least a little section on the genetics of race near the end. The garbage that Stormfront is peddling has been around for a long time, and maybe we need to start addressing it at the undergrad level now…and yes, at the high school level. I’ll have to leave that to the high school science teachers out there reading this.