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I think that a lot of cell biology courses, especially at the high-school and undergraduate level, fail to engender the appropriate sense of wonder at just how awesome the cell is. And I think that the main culprit in this is their presentation of the cell as a series of static slides. While that might have once been necessary due to technological limitation, we have plenty of new toys that can showcase the dynamic nature of cellular life (foremost among them the fluorescent proteins). There just isn’t an excuse anymore.

The presentation of the static cell is not only staggeringly boring, but also fundamentally misleading. The constituents of the cell move quite a bit, and without that motion bad things happen. This is most clear in the case of nerve cells.A nerve cell has a centralized nucleus, like most other cells, but it also has projections known as axons (which conduct signals away from the cell body) and dendrites (which conduct signals to the cell body). In some cases the length of these axons is measured in feet. To put that in perspective that’s about the distance between Dallas, TX and New Orleans, LA if you are the size of a mitochondrion. And if you are a mitochondrion your services may well be needed at the end of that axon, however, you are also going to need a supply of proteins that are translated back in the cell body (this is what you get for outsourcing part of your genome, but that’s a story for another time).

So how do they accomplish this? The same way we do: they commute. They commute really dang fast. And thanks to the magic of fluorescent proteins and YouTube, you can take a look for yourself: The above is a time lapse video of mitochondria zipping about in an axon. The full time elapsed is 100s. What you are seeing is a number of mitochondria commuting back and forth towards either the axon terminal or the nucleus. You may notice that they follow a particular path. That’s either a microfilament or a microtubule, components of the cellular structural network known as the cytoskeleton. This motion is a continuous race along the highways of the cytoskeleton to keep you alive and functional. Defects in mitochondrial motion are being linked to neurological disorders. If this delacate transport network (that is functioning in every single neuron in your body) is interrupted, you are going to feel the consequences.

That’s exciting. That’s what is at stake, and that’s why it is vitally important to get a grasp of how these things work. And yet, many professors just can’t seem to figure this out and so will drone on with their static slides and let the interest of their students die a tragic death.

Written by Caudoviral

03/04/2011 at 13:07

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You might just be disingenuous if…

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Okay, so I know several other bloggers have hit this before (I personally found out about it from erv), but given my interests I couldn’t help but toss in my two cents. And I am going to at least try to focus on a slightly different aspect of the issue.

This all begins in the (web)pages of Nature: Transgenic bacterium sparks row in French schools. It seems that the Committee for Research & Independent Information on Genetic Engineering, is all in a tizzy because French schools want to teach basic E. Coli transformation to 15 and 16 year olds. A great deal has been made over what motivates these people, and I am not going to go into that at any length. I think it is clear that their motives are anything but pure: they are an alarmist, anti-GMO political advocacy group. It will be more interesting to instead look at what they are saying and realise that, regardless of their motivation, it’s completely idiotic. Let’s say that you feel that genetically modified organisms are going to bring about the apocalypse, fine (I for one welcome our new cat-lizard overlords, and will argue that with you another day), you still need to see that these guys are nutjobs.

Gilles-Eric Séralini, president of the organization’s scientific committee, says that CRIIGEN is in favour of genetic engineering, as long as it is properly controlled. But the necessary restrictions are not currently in place, he says.

CRIIGEN “will urge the education ministry to impose a moratorium until a full debate on the question is organized”, says Séralini. “We believe such material should not be manipulated by students before they reach university.”

He warns against trivialization of a sensitive subject, contamination risks and possible violation of European directives on the manipulation of genetically modified organisms in confined spaces. “I am also concerned that practical classes erode the time spent imparting knowledge of biology,” he adds.

Let’s break that down:

(1) trivialization of a sensitive subject. This is a meaningless statement. I do not see a case that can be made that education trivialises anything (either that or European schools are much more different than I have been led to believe). And as for sensitive subjects…please. CRIIGEN claims to be a scientific organisation. We do not have sensitive subjects. It’s one of those weasely, soft words that is meaningless in discussions of facts.

(2) possible violation of European directives on the manipulation of genetically modified organisms in confined spaces. This is odd…I am pretty sure that European directives allow a process that has been going on for over half a century in labs across Europe. Doubly odd in that CRIIGEN themselves think that these directives should not inhibit university students. I am going to be very surprised if anyone can turn up a European directive setting an age limit on performing science experiments.

(3) “I am also concerned that practical classes erode the time spent imparting knowledge of biology.” And here is the big one. Science is an admixture of theory and practice. To teach one without the other is…not teaching science. It’s rather definitional. Séralini is both a university professor and researcher. He cannot be ignorant of this. This last statement is an outright lie. Or perhaps not, I have no doubt that he is concerned by this, but I do doubt his concern is for the students’ benefit.

So in short: non-sense, non-sense, and non-sense.

Look, if you have decided to say that your organisation is for “Research & Independent Information”, shouldn’t you be advocating…I dunno, maybe research and information? The message presented here is that ‘There is a terrible danger from the sensitive subject of GMO and we do not want people to learn about it.’ If you believe that GMO presents a threat, how are you protecting people by deliberately trying to keep them from understanding it? This is not the sign of an honest and well intentioned organisation. The ‘personal experience and independent verification of our claims is bad, you should really just listen to us’ camp is neither a reasonable nor proper position for any organisation that claims “To carry out research and provide information on genetic engineering and its impact in the fields of biology, the environment, agriculture, food, medicine and public health,” or “To make every effort towards the removal of the status of secrecy prevailing in genetic engineering experiments” (both of which appear in Article 3 of their Articles of Association). In fact, it seems to me to be the very antithesis of both of those claims and of the scientific attitude in general.

Regardless of what you believe about the GMO issue, does anyone really think that the proper course of action is to withhold education and information? If you want to convince anyone that GMOs are bad, then you need to use data and transparency. The only reason to fight against education and understanding is to protect the spread of falsehood, which is exactly what CRIIGEN is doing.

Written by Caudoviral

02/04/2011 at 04:04

Posted in Education

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The Cautious 60%

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So I am sure that some of my readers will have heard about this already, but there is yet another survey floating around showing that (surprise, surprise) evolution is not being well taught in the nation’s highschool classrooms. Given the general level of scientific literacy on the subject, it is no surprise that we find a flaw in primary education on it. It is very difficult to grow up in modern society without being exposed to the idea, and while it is an elegant idea, it is not necessarily a simple one. So the first exposure any given person receives to it is most likely going to be wrong or only partially true. It falls to the humble science teacher to correct and complete these mis and partial understandings.

But the truth of the matter appears to be that they do not. Why? Well, an article in the current issue of Science (“Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom“) goes into that. We recently all had cause to celebrate the Dover decision, yet the article’s authors state: “We suggest that the cheering was premature and the victory incomplete.”

And they make a pretty good, if depressing, point. Others have focused on the explicit creationists in the school system, and while they are a problem, I have to side with the article’s authors: the so called “cautious 60%” are much more of an immediate concern. Maybe I am biased in thinking that even a 15 year old child should be able to see through the arguments of a dogmatic creationist, or maybe I am just more concerned about a silent majority than I am about a vocal minority (since the latter tends to only thrive in the tacit approval of the former).

So the findings of the study show that vocal evolutionists and vocal creationists make up only a 40% of America’s highschool science teachers. What about the 60% left over? They just want to keep their heads down and teach in such a way as no one gives them trouble, regardless of the consequences to their student’s understanding. The tactics most commonly used to do so are three: (1) Teach evolution solely on the micro scale; (2) teach evolution to the test while giving vocal caveats that the test is structured as if evolution were true and that they are certainly not making any kind of statement on the matter or asserting it as really true (the tactic my particular highschool biology teacher used); and (3) teaching the “controversy”.

Now all three of these are very problematic: (1) Ignores the very sizeable amount of evidence and very important role of macro-evolution. It leaves their students ill-informed and ill-equipped, and undermines the entire theory as a whole. (2) & (3) are even worse. They introduce into the classroom this air of intellectual relativism, to whit an idea that demonstrated scientific fact should have only as much credence as opinion. And moreover that the individual students opinion is more important than the proceedings of the entire scientific community. A very odd and obviously misguided notion. While encouraging free thought is a noble endeavour, encouraging a disregard and disrespect of rational thought and evidence is quite the opposite.

The cautious 60% may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists. The strategies of emphasizing microevolution, justifying the curriculum on the basis of state-wide tests, or “teaching the controversy” all undermine the legitimacy of findings that are well established by the combination of peer review and replication. These teachers fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments, even if unintentionally.

I think that this silent majority should come under as harsh (or potentially even harsher criticism) than the misguided minority. I have no more respect for the craven than I do for the deluded (and indeed the deluded have a certain air of genuine good-intention behind them, misguided as it is, while the craven only care about their own asses). And after all, I believe someone once said something quite eloquent about planks v. splinters.

Sources & Further Reading

  • Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom
  • While not directly related, I keep finding myself recommending Dawkin’s new text The Greatest Show on Earth as an excellent primer on evolution, written in accessible language. Although I do generally detest the man’s rhetorical style and patronising attitude.

Written by Caudoviral

02/01/2011 at 21:51

Posted in Education

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