19 January 2006

Evolution in Action - H5N1 Influenza

The H5N1 strain of influenza, also known as "avian influenza" or "bird flu," has been in the news a lot, so I'm assuming that anyone likely to read this knows more or less what it is. If you don't, there's a five-part series over on the old Aetiology site that covers things in depth (1,2,3,4,5). As new cases of this disease are identified, samples of the virus are being shipped to labs and examined in detail. Viruses are notorious for evolving rapidly, and scientists are closely following the evolution of this particular virus.

A news item in this weeks issue of the journal Nature discusses three mutations that have been found in virus samples collected from victims of the H5N1 outbreak in Turkey. At least two of these mutations, according to the article, appear to make the virus better able to attack humans. All three of these mutations involve substitutions of one amino acid for another in a protein.

Two of the mutations involve a protein that allows the virus to bind to the cells of the organism that it is attacking. The researchers don't yet know if one of them has any effect on the way the virus works. The other definitely does. It makes it easier for the virus to bind to human cells, but at a cost: it makes it harder for the virus to bind to bird cells.

The remaining mutation is found in a protein that the virus uses to copy itself. This one is quite familiar to researchers - it is one of the mutations that was found in the Spanish Flu, which appears to have been an avian influenza strain that evolved into a human strain. According to the Nature article, this change makes it easier for the virus to function in primates.

Researchers say that both of these mutations have been observed before, but these cases mark the first time that they have been found together. It's still not certain what effect they will ultimately have on the way that this virus functions, but this is definitely not a comforting discovery, even if the disease does turn out to be less fatal than feared.

The situation with H5N1 illustrates a number of things quite well. First and foremost, it illustrates the power of both molecular ecology and evolutionary approaches in studies of infectious disease. It also demonstrates the value of studying viruses in other, non-human, systems. Viruses can, have, and will evolve the ability to jump from one species of host to another. Studying viruses in other organisms can provide us with a headstart on identifying and attempting to prevent human outbreaks. Such studies could also provide us with a better understanding of the way that populations of viruses function and evolve. Finally, and most importantly, studies like these clearly indicate something that Tara Smith has been saying over at Aetiology for a while now: we badly need to invest in both our public health system as a whole, and in infectious disease research in particular.

18 January 2006

Got Cheese?

Apparently not content with merely trumpeting their discontent with news articles as they are released, the Discovery Institute's Media Complaints Division has launched a preemptive whine at the New York Times.

Apparently, a reporter from the Times contacted them looking for comment on a recent pro-evolution piece in L'Osservatore Romano. The Discovery Institute, it would appear, is concerned that the Times might think that this somehow represents a stand that is being taken by the Vatican.

The DI's Rob Crowther quotes from some spinan email outlining the real facts of the matter that he sent to the Times' reporter:
Not surprisingly, The New York Times did not the cover the Pope’s approving mention of intelligent design in one of his Wednesday speeches last November, yet it seems to take seriously as Vatican policy an op-ed by a little known writer published in the L'Osservatore Romano. We reported about this at length ourselves at http://www.evolutionnews.org/2005/11/in_evolution_debate_the_media.html
The Discovery Institute is fond of citing this bit of so-called support from the Pope, so it might be good to refresh ourselves on exactly what it was that the Pope said about Intelligent Design:
With the sacred Scripture, the Lord awakens the reason that sleeps and tells us: In the beginning, there was the creative word. In the beginning, the creative word -- this word that created everything and created this intelligent project that is the cosmos -- is also love.
According to the DI, "intelligent project" should have been translated as "intelligent design." Call me crazy, but reading that as an unambiguous endorsement for the DI's policies seems to me to be a bit of a stretch. The statement is certainly compatible with ID, but it is equally compatible with theistic evolution, or a number of other positions. It does serve as a reminder that the Catholic Church believes that God is personally and continuously involved in His creation. But that is nothing new - the Church never has, and never will, taken any other position.

An op-ed in the official Vatican newspaper by an Italian evolutionary biologist is certainly not at the same level as a clear and unambiguous statement made by the pontiff. However, the material published in the Vatican newspaper is probably a better barometer of the Catholic Church's position on a subject than the views of some third-rate political and media hacks in Seattle.

17 January 2006

American Pride

My parents are currently visiting Honolulu, and last night my wife and I treated them to a luau. The tourist luaus don't really resemble the kinds of celebrations that locals throw, of course, but an "authentic" tourist luau, complete with Tahitian Hula and a Samoan Fire-knife dancer, should be a part of anyone's visit to Hawaii.

This particular luau took place at the Hale Koa hotel in Waikiki. The Hale Koa ("House of the Warrior") is the hotel at the Ft. DeRussey Armed Forces Recreation Center, and caters to the military. This means that pretty much everyone at the luau has some connection to the armed forces.

The people who set up the luau know this, of course, and they close the luau by recognizing and thanking the veterans of the various wars for their service, then by recognizing those who are currently in the service. The final song is a stirring rendition of Lee Greenwood's Proud to be an American, complete with a standing audience and candles.

Usually (we've taken family to this luau a few times now) I more or less blow off the conclusion. I mean, I stand and sing with everyone else, but it isn't exactly what I'd call a thought-provoking moment. Last night was different.

Last night, I started out by thinking about what I could do to show my pride in this country, and what I could do to defend America and American Values. I tried to join the military some years back, but was medically disqualified, so that was out, but I was still feeling a bit guilty. My wife is on active duty, and does her part, but what do I do? What could I do? Then, as I thought about the last verse of the song, it came to me:
And I gladly stand up,
next to you and defend her still today.
‘ Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land,
God bless the USA.
In a sudden moment of clarity, I realized that there was something I could do, even if it wasn't much, to do my part to defend the things that this country stands for.

I went home, went online, and joined the ACLU.

That's not quite what you were expecting, was it?

I think that our country is really seriously threatened by terrorism. I think that the physical threat to Americans is very much real, and I think that we do need to use our military to protect ourselves. I disaprove of the way we went into Iraq, but I think that our action in Afghanistan was entirely appropriate - the government there was clearly sheltering and assisting groups that had killed large numbers of Americans, and which had every intention of doing so again. Doing our best to deal with that problem made sense.

The physical threat to Americans from terrorists is still out there, and still very much real. We will need to be alert to the possibility of further terrorist strikes for the forseeable future, because there are people who, for various reasons, hate America and want to kill Americans. But that's only part of the threat.

The threat to America goes far beyond the threat of physical attack. The terrorist activities are intended to - and do - create a level of fear in the public. People want to feel safe, and the threat of terrorism makes us feel unsafe. The danger is that we will do things in order to feel safe that threaten exactly those things that make America special - our civil rights.

The ACLU may be unpopular these days. They are the target of right-wing derision, and their willingness to take up unpopular causes doesn't do much to increase their popularity with most Americans. But now, more than ever, the ACLU and other similar organizations are an essential safeguard against attacks on our civil rights.

Dissent is patriotic. Standing up against the government on issues like illegal wiretapping is not only patriotic, it is a courageous stand against the terrorists. It tells them that we will not sacrifice the things that make America great just to protect ourselves against them. I am proud to be an American, and I am willing to do what I can to protect the things that make America special.

Joining the ACLU is the best way I can think of, at least right now, to do that.

16 January 2006

Talk about your first impression.

A News @ nature.com article discusses a study just published in Behaviour and Information Technology. It would appear that people can form snap judgements on websites given a view that is as short as 50 milliseconds. I guess finding a good template is more important than I thought.