Ask a Biologist

Algeroth

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Biologists of all CFC, unite!

For too long we have read Ask a ... threads from philosophers, economists, engineers, programmers, mathematicians and others. Time has come for biologists to have their own thread, where they could answer questions from their field of science.


Do you have any questions regarding biology, study of biology or biological reserach? About some article that interested you and you want to know more? About some concept that you can't grasp? About anything else, biology-related?

I and others would try to answer you as best we could. But because the field of biology is vast it could happen that we don't enough about that area of biology. And even if it is in our supposed area of knowledge, it could happen that we were never interested in that particular problem, sorry. But we will try.

As for my background, I study Ecological and Evolutionary Biology at Charles University in Prague and in few weeks I should (hopefully) finish my bachelor degree and continue my master degree in Terrestrial ecology. I pondered about continuing in Ethology, but I ultimately decided against it.

But I'm definitely not the only (or most competent) biologists among CFCers, other biologist should answer your questions too.

Contre was a biology major at OSU, with interest in zoology and ethology.

The_J got B.sc in Bioinformatics and M.sc in Microbiology and can answer questions from genetics and molecular biology, fields that I shamefully neglected

And we hope that there are other biologist on this forum that would show themselves.

Warning: I know that threads about evolution was among the longest and the fiercest of OT threads. I haven't made this a RD thread, because I hope that you could use your common sense, and if you realize that you are arguing with someone, you will move to another thread or ask moderators to split off your valuable debate. But if you will argue with someone here for too long, I'll call the mods. You've been warned.
 

Smellincoffee

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What popular science books in biology might you recommend?
 

AlpsStranger

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How realistic is the Jurassic Park scenario?

( I mean the part about restoring live Dinosaurs, not the morality tale about them running amok )
 

emzie

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How realistic is the Jurassic Park scenario?

( I mean the part about restoring live Dinosaurs, not the morality tale about them running amok )

Impossible with current understanding of molecular biology and embryology.

DNA is a rather unstable molecule that degrades rapidly when its host dies. Under ideal conditions, a genome can remain intact for a few hundred thousand years in permafrost. but at time frames going back to dinosaurs, you won't find any usable DNA, even in amber.

Not too long ago, a paper made waves claiming to have found proteins in dinosaur fossils. From a protein, one could recreate a DNA sequence, though that's like saying we recovered one fragment sentence from the Bible. It's not going to tell you much of the story. I was pretty skeptical of the paper when I first read it though, so I'm not even sure the proteins will turn out to be a real find.

Even if we did manage to build the genome of an entire dinosaur, that would only be part of the battle. As you may know, you started out as a single cell -- your mothers egg. That cell divided in to two, and then those two into 4 and so on. If you continued this, you'd just end up with a ball of cells. How does a body form from that? Well areas of the ball of cells start specializing into different parts, but that merely begs the question how an eye knows to grow where it does. How a cell knows what it's supposed to become is entirely dependant upon the mother. Before you were conceived, your mother's body laid gradients of chemicals along the egg. As the zygote grew, the gradient spread across the entire thing, differentiating a top and bottom, back and front. So if chemical X was laid strong on one end of the cell, but lightly on the other end, a cell that sees a high concentration of chemical X knows to grow as a head.

So without the mother to lay this stuff down, we'd just have a recipe for a dinosaur and no way to grow it.


What popular science books in biology might you recommend?

Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins is brilliant. It's a very good introduction into biology and evolution. It also explains Hox genes (what I described as the chemical signals laid across a cell) much better than I did.
 

Algeroth

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What popular science books in biology might you recommend?

You can't go wrong with the Three Good Books of Dawkins - The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker. His other books are known as Not So Good Books of Dawkins , while he still superb popularizer of science, his later books seems to me less like a popularization of science and more like a proving a point. Even The Blind Watchmaker is somewhat worse than the first two. But the first two are a must.

Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean Carroll is a brilliant introduction into Evo-Devo, I would maybe recommend it more than the Dawkins books - His book are kinda mainstream and you will be encountering concepts that you are somehow familiar with. This should be new for you.

Frontiers of Complexity by Coveney and Highfield, while not exactly book in biology, gives very readable insight into the places where biology meets cybernetics and moves toward formal sciences. The whole complexity thing could be sooo 90', and it is no longer a buzzword in academy, but it is still interesting subject and this book is one of my favourite.

And The Human, the Orchid, and the Octopus by Jacques Cousteau is very outdated, but I found it also very nostalgic. A magic window to the simpler times when protecting the environment meant stopping pollution and saving endangered species, not preventing global warming.

And I also enjoyed essays from S. J. Gould, but I have no idea in which collections they were printed in English.

How realistic is the Jurassic Park scenario?

( I mean the part about restoring live Dinosaurs, not the morality tale about them running amok )

Borderline impossible. Even if you would find intact DNA (or intact enough) after such time, the idea of "fixing it" with frogs' DNA is moronic - you wouldn't get dinosaurs, you would get some hybrid frog-dinosaurs if you would be lucky and the results would be viable. And then, of course, is the problem with finding eggs that could process the dinosaur DNA, you can't just switch DNA from one oocyte to oocyte of another species.
 

AlpsStranger

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Cool :)

I figured they must have glossed over a lot in Jurassic Park, but I wasn't aware just how much.
 

_random_

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If Jurassic Parking is out of the question, what are some biology-based science fiction premises you'd consider feasible?

What would you say the biggest misconceptions about your particular field of study are?

Do you carry a squid and a dissection kit around everywhere, just in case?
 
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As a biologist what do you think of Richard Dawkins. He's a biologist isn't he? Would you recommend his books?
 

Mark1031

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How many biologists do you meet that don't understand evolution? Because I meet many neurobiologists that do not. These are practicing, well known, professors who do not understand the concept of spandrels. Essentially if they see something change in their experiment they assume it is functionally important for what they are studying. When questioned about it being only a correlation they say “well why would it be there, evolution would not waste so much energy on this if it wasn’t important”.
 

emzie

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If Jurassic Parking is out of the question, what are some biology-based science fiction premises you'd consider feasible?

Bringing back recently extinct species, especially where we can find a closely-related relative still alive. I would not be shocked to see mammoths walking within my life time. That's not very speculative though.

Going a bit further out, creating something like australopithecus or another extinct human ancestor. In a similar vein, Michael Crichton's Next doesn't read as totally absurd to me.

What would you say the biggest misconceptions about your particular field of study are?

Let me get back to you.

Do you carry a squid and a dissection kit around everywhere, just in case?

I wanted to be a marine biologist before realizing that's less dolphins more squid. Squid freak me out.

As a biologist what do you think of Richard Dawkins. He's a biologist isn't he? Would you recommend his books?

Keeping in mind that biology is a massive field, yes he's a biologist. I'm not a big fan of his militancy when facing religion, though I don't really disagree with it. His pop-science books are probably the best out there though.

How many biologists do you meet that don't understand evolution? Because I meet many neurobiologists that do not. These are practicing, well known, professors who do not understand the concept of spandrels. Essentially if they see something change in their experiment they assume it is functionally important for what they are studying. When questioned about it being only a correlation they say “well why would it be there, evolution would not waste so much energy on this if it wasn’t important”.

I'm not sure I'd say someone who is an ultra-adaptionist doesn't understand evolution, they're just assigning too much power to natural selection.
 
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His pop-science books are probably the best out there though.

I have never heard of the term "pop-science" before and I'm honestly not sure what it means. Science in popular culture perhaps? In the same way that watching the Moon landings would be pop science?
 

Andvare

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What would you say the biggest misconceptions about your particular field of study are?

As a biochemist, it's often how little we have in common with the biologists, but I'd say it's vaccines and how they work.

As a biologist what do you think of Richard Dawkins. He's a biologist isn't he? Would you recommend his books?

I dislike his "all religious people are evil and stupid" stick, but he is a great communicator.

I'd also recommend Jared Diamond. Though his popular science works are more anthropology than biology, they draw quite heavily from biology, and that in itself makes it a great read, using several fields of science to make one point.
 

Andvare

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I have never heard of the term "pop-science" before and I'm honestly not sure what it means. Science in popular culture perhaps? In the same way that watching the Moon landings would be pop science?

Popular science, as in science explained to the lay-person, without all that nasty math.

In general, it's an easier read, and often also a more pleasurable read, as they don't go into details on those pesky proofs that people in labcoats seems so anxious about.
 

The_J

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How realistic is the Jurassic Park scenario?

( I mean the part about restoring live Dinosaurs, not the morality tale about them running amok )

Besides the scientific issues raised:
Nobody is crazy enough to pump that much money into such a project, because a) the government couldn't justify it b) corporations wouldn't want it.
The time scale is also not realistic.
What I mean...if you do genetic manipulations on bacteria, then you do quite some plates, many cultures, and if it fails then you do that maybe for a week, or two. And bacteria multiply within hours.
But if you go to higher animals (let's take the Mammut case, since I don't know anything about reptiles)...you'd need multiple herds of elephantes, and you'd only see the end result after 2 years.
Doesn't sound likely that someone would try that, does it?

As a biologist what do you think of Richard Dawkins. He's a biologist isn't he? Would you recommend his books?

The...er...metaphysical about his work is... I'd say BS, the concrete part okay (never thought about that area).

Can't say anything about any books ^^.

How many biologists do you meet that don't understand evolution? Because I meet many neurobiologists that do not. These are practicing, well known, professors who do not understand the concept of spandrels. Essentially if they see something change in their experiment they assume it is functionally important for what they are studying. When questioned about it being only a correlation they say “well why would it be there, evolution would not waste so much energy on this if it wasn’t important”.

...well...a neurobiologist is more a sort of medial doctor, isn't he :mischief:?

The last sentence you quote is sure not right, but enough for everydays work. If you asked them for something more specific, or questioned that sentence, they might explain it right.
Edit: Since I now realize who asked, I guess you asked them?

I don't think I've met anyone during my studies where it was obvious that he/she didn't understand it.
 

Andvare

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What resources would you recommend for replying to anti-vaccine folks?

Depends on the type of moro... I mean argument, yes argument.

A common stupidity is with children and vaccines.
I have seen many, otherwise intelligent, parents arrange for their child to become infected with some disease that you can get a vaccine for. Here the argument would be something along the lines of:
"What is more dangerous to your child's well being, a live bacteria or a dead one?"
See, a vaccine is often just a dead or inactive bacteria/virus.
The Hep A vaccine is a dead bacteria, the Measles vaccine is an attenuated virus. Yes, that means that the vaccine for measles is the actual disease, just made, you know, not dangerous.
 

The_J

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What would you say the biggest misconceptions about your particular field of study are?

That there's soooo much known about it.
During my master thesis (was about the production of toxins, antibiotics, etc) I was totally surprised that there's only a tiny bit in this area yet discovered.
Saying that everything is already discovered would be totally false.

As a biochemist, it's often how little we have in common with the biologists, but I'd say it's vaccines and how they work.

Oh, tell me :D.

What resources would you recommend for replying to anti-vaccine folks?

Do you want a study (-> no idea), or a general string of arguments?
Edit: I see I don't have to write anything about the latter part.
 

_random_

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Depends on the type of moro... I mean argument, yes argument.
My mom's chiropractor's office had a ton of crap about how flu vaccines are dangerous. Got anything about those in particular?
Do you want a study (-> no idea), or a general string of arguments?
Edit: I see I don't have to write anything about the latter part.
Either one would work.
 

Andvare

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Oh, tell me :D.

At the University of Copenhagen, the whole biology faculty used to get a free pass for the local zoo.
Now I never got this, as I started out as a physical chemist, moved on to pure chemistry and then to biochem, so I was never a part of the biology faculty. But a friend of mine, that studied bioinformation in archaea (yeah, the definition of niche) got a free pass, even though he had nothing to do with animals of any kind.
 

The_J

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Edit: :lol: @above.
Thought there was something more relevant ^^.

My mom's chiropractor's office had a ton of crap about how flu vaccines are dangerous. Got anything about those in particular?

That again depends on the exact danger.
There can always be undesirable side effects, which can be really dangerous, and it's important to tell the people about them.

But people who neglect getting vaccinated against flue should be aware of the fact that a flu is a deadly illness, not just a cold. And certainly nothing is more dangerous than getting killed.
 
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