Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Science and politics

By Martín Bonfil Olivera

Published in Milenio Diario, december 23, 2009

Unlike the simplified models of theory, reality is a complex tangle, a web whose conforming elements are connected to one another in complex and multiple ways.

Science is the discipline that helps understand such connections. It produces models that, even though ideal, are reliable, and therefore help us to make appropriate decisions. Politics, on the other hand, is the art of taking advantage of these connections, or building the ones that are lacking, to make that things happen in a society ("the art of the possible", chancellor von Bismarck is said to have called it).

Scientific knowledge is often the impulse and basis for constructing political action. But it is not enough: political ability is needed to make the web strong enough.

Sometimes this can be achieved, sometimes not. In Copenhagen it was not, even though there is solid scientific data and consensus about what to do. The forces opposing the agreement -the economical costs of reconverting the industries of powerful countries; the unavoidable political costs linked to them– prevented it from happening.

On the other hand, in Mexico city, political ability, supported on modern knowledge about human beings and their sexuality, allowed homosexual marriage to be approved, and without the unfair lock –and implicit homophobic argument– that did not allow adoption!

But science and politics are processes: they never stop. Sooner or later, the policies necessary to fight climate change will have to be agreed upon. Unless, of course, we discover something new: an unexpected piece of good news that would also have to be based in science.

In matters of human, sexual and reproductive rights, the advances, though slow, are not stopping. Autopsies were prohibited, by religious reasons, for centuries, until the Renaissance. Blacks and women, considered as inferiors, could not vote until the middle of last century. In vitro fertilisation caused a hot debate, also because of religious prejudice; the fact that the expression "test-tube baby" sounds obsolete nowadays is proof that societies advance and assimilate changes that are beneficial for them.

Until recently, homosexuality was legally punished. Today, the full equality of couples, sexual orientation notwhitstanding, is recognized in the law. In the near future, other items are pending: the right to abortion, euthanasia, research with stem cells. And furthermore, a proposal for "animal rights" for the great apes (gorillas, orangutans, chimps).

In a secular state, decisions must be based in reliable knowledge, and taken to widen, not to suppress, the rights of everybody. Science helps politics build new links so that the necessary changes in the complex social web can be built and sustained. Congratulations…! and Merry Christmas.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Abortion and fallacies

By Martín Bonfil Olivera

Published in Milenio Diario, december 2nd, 2009

The decriminalization of abortion (or its penalization, in this poor country that, as it takes a step forward, always takes another backwards) is not a scientific issue, but a social and political one.

And also an ethical problem, of course… just like all social and political issues. But unlike what happened in the middle ages, when it was believed that the only valid ethical criteria were those dictated by religion, today, in the 21st century, we have scientific knowledge as a very important guide to norm the decisions we take as a society.

That's why fallacies such as "life begins at conception" cannot be allowed to pass for arguments when used by political parties, such as PRI, PAN, even PRD, and of course, the catholic hierarchy, have been doing in Mexico, in order to approve laws that will limit women's right to decide over their body, thus violating their human rights.

To refute this is so easy that its embarrassing: life does not begin at conception, because the sperm and ovum, the cells whose union gives origin to the zygote or fertilized egg (which is presented by these people as "potentially" human), are already alive before conception. If we take life as an absolute value, we should consider night ejaculations and menstruation as instances of assassination… "potentially".

A nice try to avoid this objection is to define that which starts with fertilization as human life. Again, false: sperm and ovule are as human as a zygote. The one thing that characterizes a zygote or an embryo as "human" during its first developmental stages is its genetic information… which is also present in the cells that give origin to it. (And even so, if the church wanted to argue that the essence of the human being reduces to its genes, they'd be getting into a conceptual mess worse than the one they started with!.)

A human being does not suddenly appear: it develops. Before the 12th week, it does not have a nerve system that can support functions such as perception and consciousness, without which we cannot speak of a "person". (For the same reason, someone with irreversible brain damage is not considered "alive" anymore, although its heart and lungs may be still functioning.)

As stated yesterday by Roberto Blancarte in Milenio Diario, what the religious hierarchy is achieving, with the complicity of political parties, is to "confessionalize politics, weaken secular State, and introduce catholic norms in legislation and public policies". It is evident: the criminalization of abortion is unjust and dishonest. Science and human rights give us enough arguments to oppose it. Otherwise, the price will still be paid by our women, and our society as a whole.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Monday, November 9, 2009


By Martín Bonfil Olivera

Published in Milenio Diario, november 9th, 2009

The scandal was very well timed: one month before the United Nations climate change conference took place in Copenhagen, Denmark, some hackers, probably Russian, broke into the servers of the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia University, in England. They extracted one thousand e-mail messages and two thousand assorted documents, that were then published over the internet.

The objective? To "prove" that climate change experts manipulate data, hide information, ridicule and insult their adversaries –climate change denialists that oppose the fact that global warming is real, or consider it as natural phenomenon, not caused by human activity– and prevent them from publishing their arguments.

And it's true: some documents seem to show evidence of these kind of manipulations. The issue is being investigated to determine if there has been bad scientific practice. If it's confirmed, it will be punished. Also, published data is being verified, to ensure it's reliable.

But it's very probable that we're dealing with a discredit campaign to weaken the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations, the scientific community and the governments which, right now, are discussing in Copenhagen the urgency of taking measures to diminish the greenhouse effect emissions to attenuate, as much as possible, the damage global warming is already causing.

Sadly, for people who are not specialists, the exhibition of the dirty laundry of scientists in action can be scandalous. In contrast with the pure and untainted –but false- image of science as an infallible method to discover absolute truths, to see researchers as human beings, who commit mistakes and have envies and political interests is a good way to challenge the results of their investigations. But they forget that the reliability of such results it is not given by the personality of individual scientific people, but by a very hard to manipulate collective, international and public quality control process.

It is easy to discredit something by inventing conspiracy theories and exhibiting isolated and out-of-context data. But, independently of the very high economical and political costs of modifying our industry, to play the fool before climate change is an inadmissible risk.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Scientific intolerance

By Martín Bonfil Olivera

Published in Milenio Diario, november 4th, 2009

A month ago I criticized the fraud commited by people who promise to cure to almost any disease by using a machine called SCIO (against, of course, of a good amount of cash).

As always when pseudoscience and charlatans are attacked, I received some congratulatory e-mails, and some other (not many, luckily) that accused me of being dogmatic, intolerant and of disqualifying "other" forms or rationality "that deserve the same respect as the scientific worldview".

It's common to accuse science, and the people who practice it, promote it or communicate it, of being intolerant. But we must remember that science seeks only to study nature, in order to produce reliable knowledge that allows us to understand it and maybe predict it. When referring to the intolerance of science, normally what is questioned is its refusal to recognize practices such as astrology, the study of paranormal phenomena, miracle therapies based on principles "that go beyond science" or conspiracy theories, as scientific.

This exclusion is due in part to the fact that the methods of these disciplines ar not rigorous enough, or their data do not look reliable (in case they are not straightforward fakery). Sometimes, what is not acceptable are their study objects, since science studies only natural phenomena, not supernatural ones.

In science, for a statement to be accepted, it has to go through a complex process of peer review that involves the verification of data and methods, and the discussion of results. The reasons why scientists accept a affirmation have to do with its logical coherence, its plausibility within the existent scientific frame of knowledge, the reproducibility of experiments in which its based, and other reasons (among which some dose of politics and ideology are not excluded).

However, nothing makes a scientist happier than to discover that something that was known turns out to be incorrect. To find mistakes and inconsistencies in scientific theories forces researchers to find even better explanations. This is the force that pushes science forward.

But, for the process to work, it has to be subject to a highly rigorous quality control. The first duty of a scientist is not to delude himself. Science has an unavoidable commitment with reality. If, sometimes this sounds like intolerance, that's not a problem of the scientific method, but of the disciplines that try to pass as scientific... when they are not.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Science and technology week in Mexico

By Martín Bonfil Olivera

Published in Milenio Diario, October 28th, 2009

Each year, in October, science popularizers get our busiest season, because that's when the national Science and technology week is held in Mexico.

As a matter of fact, the demand for all kinds of activities –conferences, courses, workshops, expositions, science fairs, concerts, starry nights, contests…- its such that many states opt to enlarge it, turning it into the Month of Science and Technology – and some, into several months! – so competition is not that intense.

The event, promoted and organized by the National Council for Science and Technology (Conacyt), has for 16 years placed scientific culture in the reach of literally millions of kids, youngsters and adults all over the country.

This year the national venue was the state of Tabasco, where I have been able to attend several activities organized together by the state government, the Tabasco Science and Technology Council (CCYTET) and a good number of organizations and enthusiastic people who are engaged in science popularization.

But is it worth it, with all the economic crisis and our country's problems, to spend budget and work in such an event? Here are four good reasons to do it:

-Because the standard of life in a country depends strongly on the size of its scientific-technological-industrial apparatus. An good-sized, active scientific community detonates the production of original knowledge which become technology and patents that can make a modern and powerful nation. Think of the Korean cell phones, Indian cars and Chinese computers we import, or of the Brazilian technology for oil extraction that we're far of matching. And the first step is to awaken scientific vocations in kids and young people (and of course, to give them jobs in research institutes, but that's another story).

-Because the scientific way of thinking is a powerful tool in fighting harmful beliefs, such as the conspiracy theories that deny the seriousness of the influenza pandemia and the usefulness of vaccines in preventing infection.

-Because if the citizens do not understand the science behind matters such as cloning, euthanasia, transgenic crops or stem-cell research, they cannot take part in the decisions we as a society need to take.

-Because science and technology, as products of human creativity, are and endless source of amazement and great ways of having a great time. All citizens have the right to enjoy them.

For these, and many other reasons, long live the Science and Technology Week! I only wish it could last all year long.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

An award for Cotija cheese

By Martín Bonfil Olivera

Published in Milenio Diario, October 21th, 2009

Last week we talked about the Chemistry Nobel prize, awarded for the solving of the structure of the ribosome, the cell's protein factory. Today let's talk about Cotija cheese.

There's a link. Bear with me: an investigator from the Chemistry School at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Dr. Maricarmen Quirasco, and her master's-degree student Alma Berenice Zúñiga, have just won the National Award for Food Science and Technology, given by Coca-Cola and the National Council for Science and Technology (Conacyt), a study in which they identify and characterize the main microorganisms that live in the Cotija cheese.

Microbes in a cheese? If you're a fan of this appreciated cheese, which has been hand-produced for 450 years by about 200 families in the Jalmich mountains, close to Cotija, Michoacán, you could worry about this. Don't. The study by Quirasco and Zúñiga seeks a better understanding of the manufacturing process of this aromatic and nutritive cheese (in another study, the same group discovered it has healthy antioxidant properties), in order to protect it and improve it.

The thing is, the production of almost any cheese needs the so called lactic bacteria, which turn milk sugar (lactose) into lactic acid. This increases acidity and causes the milk proteins to curdle, thus transforming into cheese. Many other dairy products, such as yoghurt, are also teeming with microorganisms.

But in the manufacturing of the Cotija cheese, made with non-pasteurized milk, there's an actual microscopic ecosystem living there, in which there is competition between species and survival . To study it, Quirasco and Zúñiga used modern molecular techniques: they studied the ribosomal RNA genes –the main component of ribosomes, here's the link– from bacteria. These genes are used to identify species because all cells have ribosomes; when comparing them, their differences are detected and make it possible to identify them.

The study revealed that, during the ripening process of the cheese, which takes from three months to one year, the competition wipes out all possible pathogen bacteria, which guarantees the cheese's hygiene. And the knowledge gainwill allow, in the future, to standardize the production process and to help manufacturers obtain the "denomination of origin" (Protected Geographical Status), with which they could fight unfair competition from "Cotija type" cheeses, some of them even coming from abroad, that are supplanting the original.

In other words: first-class food science, done at UNAM, that will benefit Mexican producers.

(By the way, you are not necesarily interested in this, but Maricarmen Quirasco and yours truly were together when studying pharmaco-biological chemistry at UNAM, and I admired her great intelligence and dedication to work since the time we studied at National High School number 6. Honestly, congratulations Maricarmen! Read her article of the Cotija cheese, here)

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The amazing ribosome

By Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published in
Milenio Diario, October 14th, 2009

The chemistry Nobel prize thrilled me even more than the one for Medicine.

It was given to Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (Hindu, nationalized American, but living in Great Britain), Thomas Steitz (United States) and Ada Yonath (Israeli) because of "their studies about the structure and function of the ribosome".

If, like I mentioned last week, enzymes are amazing molecular machines that practically carry out all the functions of a living cell, ribosomes are an real automatized factories that manufacture, with absolute precision, each one of the thousands of different proteins we need to be alive.

A ribosome is a complex structure made of ribonucleic acid (the one-strand cousin of DNA) and many proteins.

It has some fixed parts, and other that move with robotic precision to assemble, in a matter of minutes, and from reading the information coming from DNA, proteins made up by thousands of amino acids, strung together as pearls in a necklace.

The achievement of the Nobel winners was to localize with great precision each one of the hundreds of thousands of atoms that form a ribosome, and this has allowed them to understand their functioning in atomic detail. They used X ray crystallography, a technique developed in the beginning of the 20th century (and the same one that allowed Watson and Crick to discover the DNA double helix structure in 1953 --a structure, I might add, infinitely simpler than a ribosome).

To achieve this, they first had to obtain perfectly arranged crystals formed by pure ribosomes. It took them almost 20 years.

But to see atoms, one cannot use an optical microscope, not even an electron microscope. Only X rays have the necessary finesse. And no lens can focus them to form images: you have to gather the group of stains formed as the X rays travel through the crystals (originally the stains were captured on photographic film, but today they are captured by a couple charged device or CCD, the invention that this year won the Physics Nobel prize) and using computers to mathematically process data.

The result? Computerized models that reveal, with a very high level of detail, each screw and bolt of these wonderful molecular nano-factories.

As an additional benefit, these models are allowing scientist to develop new antibiotics that work like monkey wrenches tossed into the ribosomes of bacteria that make us sick.

Yes, I loved this year's chemistry Nobel. Too bad that Harry Noller, one of the giants of ribosome research, was left out of the prize, which can only be given to three persons.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Nobel telomere

By Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published in
Milenio Diario, October 7th, 2009

Nobel prizes are always exciting. This year's Physiology or Medicine prize reveals fascinating basic science about our cells which might have revolutionary applications in health.

It was awarded, according to the Nobel committee at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, "for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase", a discovery made by investigators Elizabeth Blackburn, her colleague Jack W. Szostak and her student Carol Greider.

The genetic information of living beings is written in the molecule of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA, which form tangles called chromosomes within the nuclei on each of our cells.

Each chromosome is formed by a single, very long, DNA molecule. When it has to be copied, before the cell divides in two, the task is performed by an enzyme molecular machine made of protein.

Picture it like this: the famous DNA double helix is like a train railway. To copy it, both rails are separated and the enzyme slides over each one, reading the letters that form it and inserting the corresponding letters on the other side. Like a little train that advances in a rail, constructing the opposing rail. In the end, we have two complete and identical railways.


But when the enzyme reaches the end of the rail, it cannot advance any longer, and does not construct the last span of the opposing rail. Each time that a chromosome is copied, their tips (telomeres, from the greek telos, end, and meros, part) would shorten!

Using a very ingenious experiment, Blackburn and Szostak discovered in 1982 that telomeres protect chromosomes so they are not destroyed. They constructed mini-chromosomes and added telomeres to some, but not all, of them. When they inserted the chromosomes inside cells, those with telomeres survived, but the ones that didn't have them were rapidly eliminated.

And in 1984 (Christmas day!), Blackburn and Greider discovered another enzyme that allows telomeres to maintain their size. It achieves it because it has a mold with the correct letter sequence (CCCCAA) that have to be inserted in each tip of DNA. They named it "telomerase" (the termination "ase" in biochemistry indicated an enzyme).

Today we know that telomeres and telomerase play a role in aging and cellular death (when telomeres are shortened) and influence the uncontrolled multiplication of cancerous cells (because their telomerase is very active and their telomeres are not shortened). There are even vaccines in development to try to fight cancer by inactivating the telomerase of tumors.

Basic science, motivated by simple curiosity, offers a new medical promise, although a far one.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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