The cells, made with cloning technique behind Dolly the sheep, have the potential to regenerate damaged organs and tissues
Scientists have used the cloning technique that led to Dolly the sheep to turn human skin into embryonic stem cells – which can make any tissue in the body.
The US team overcame technical problems that had frustrated researchers for more than a decade to create batches of the body's master cells from donated skin.
The work will spark fresh interest in the use of cloning in medical research, and reignite the controversy over a procedure that demands a supply of human eggs, and the creation and destruction of early stage embryos. The US group employed the technique to make embryonic stem cells that were genetically matched to individuals. Such cells could be used to study diseases in exquisite detail, and regenerate damaged organs and tissues.
"Our finding offers new ways of generating stem cells for patients with dysfunctional or damaged tissues and organs," said Shoukhrat Mitalipov at Oregon Health and Science University. "Such stem cells can regenerate and replace those damaged cells and tissues and alleviate diseases that affect millions of people."
Dolly was born in 1996 after researchers led by Sir Ian Wilmut in Edinburgh created an embryo by fusing a cell from a sheep's udder with an egg that had had its nucleus removed. The embryo was a clone – genetically identical to the adult sheep the udder cell came from.
Since Dolly's arrival teams of scientists have tried to use cloning to make early-stage embryos, which contain embryonic stem cells. To do so they fuse a skin cell and an egg with its nucleus removed, then apply an electric shock to make the resulting cell grow. The process has worked in some animals, but until now had failed in humans.
Hopes that cloning might usher in a new era of medicine were dealt a major blow after the South Korean stem cell researcher, Woo-suk Hwang, claimed in 2005 to have perfected the process and made fresh tissue from patients' skin. A year later Hwang was charged with embezzlement and illegally buying human eggs after it emerged that his results had been faked in one of the greatest scandals in modern science.
Writing in the journal Cell, researchers led by Mitalipov describe how they set about solving problems in the cloning process. They overcame one glitch – the premature development of the cloned embryo – by adding caffeine to their dishes. The revamped procedure dramatically improved the efficiency of cloning, and Mitalipov's team harvested at least one batch of embryonic stem cells for every egg donor. Tests on the cells found they could grow into any body tissue.
"This is an important advance because it is feasible – one embryonic stem cell line was generated from just two eggs," said
Christopher Shaw, professor of neurology at King's College London. "Like many good experiments caffeine has made an invaluable contribution."
Interest in therapeutic cloning had waned among many researchers after the invention of a new technique that allowed scientists to reprogram skin cells into a more embryonic form. Unlike cloning, the procedure did not require human eggs, or the creation of early-stage embryos. Last year, Sir John Gurdon of Cambridge University, and Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University, shared thea Nobel prize for pioneering so-called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.
Though iPS cells hold great promise, they carry mutations and other abnormalities that might rule them out for medical therapies. Mitalipov's work resurrects cloning as a means of making tool for creating stem cells, and means that iPS cells can now be compared directly with embryonic stem cells to see if the differences matter.
Robin Lovell-Badge, head of developmental genetics at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, said the work "brings the topic of therapeutic cloning in humans back into the realm of good science rather than controversy".
In Britain and elsewhere, it is illegal to implant a cloned embryo into a woman's womb, and studies in animals show that most cloned embryos are aborted or suffer birth defects.
"It is an unsafe procedure in animals and it will similarly be an unsafe procedure in humans. For this reason alone it should not be attempted," said Lovell-Badge. "We are not just a product of our DNA, which is the only thing that is copied in cloning. Nurture and environment are at least as important in determining who we are, therefore cloning cannot be used to bring back a loved one."Ian Sample
The newly-sequenced scarlet macaw genome will provide many important insights into avian and human biology, behaviours and genetics and will contribute to parrot conservation
After many years of research into the behaviours, diseases, genetics and life history of scarlet macaws, a team of scientists have taken their studies to the next level. Christopher Seabury, an Assistant Professor of Genetics at Texas A&M University's college of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and Ian Tizard, Director of the Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center and a Professor of Microbiology & Immunology at Texas A&M University's college of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, spearheaded an international collaboration of scientists that sequenced the genome of the scarlet macaw, Ara macao. This work significantly expands the range and depth of research opportunities involving scarlet macaws and other parrots. In addition to important conservation applications, this research may provide insights into the genetics that contribute to key traits of parrots, such as cognitive and speech abilities as well as longevity.
Scarlet macaws are large and showy parrots with brilliant red, yellow and blue plumage and long pointed tails. Endemic to Central and South America, this impressive neotropical parrot occupies a large range from southeastern Mexico throughout the Amazon basin region of Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. Easily trained to do complex tasks and to mimic human speech, wild scarlet macaws have been persecuted by the caged bird trade. Additionally, their preferred habitat of lowland evergreen rainforests makes them vulnerable to deforestation and habitat destruction.
To do this work, Drs Seabury and Tizard and their team obtained a blood sample from an adult female scarlet macaw known as "Neblina" who resides at the Blank Park Zoo in Iowa. A wild-caught parrot from Brazil, Neblina had been seized in 1995 by the US Fish and Wildlife Service after she illegally entered the United States.
Unlike mammals, avian red blood cells are nucleated, so a small sample of whole blood from a bird is an excellent source of DNA for molecular, chromosomal and cytological studies. Some cells were grown in cultures so the intact chromosomes could be harvested and examined whilst DNA was extracted from other cells for sequencing. These gene sequences were then assembled into the complete scarlet macaw genome by Seabury and his team.
Similar to almost all vertebrates, scarlet macaws are diploid; having two copies of each chromosome type, one contributed by each parent. Like all birds except birds of prey (Falconiformes), parrot genomes contain macrochromosomes and a larger number of microchromosomes.
Macrochromosomes are what most people think of when they hear the word "chromosome" and they are the type of chromosomes that are typically found in mammals. Macrochromosomes, which include autosomes and sex chromosomes, are large -- generally more than 40 megabases (Mb) in size (1 megabase is 1,000,000 nucleotide basepairs in length).
Microchromosomes, on the other hand, are very small -- usually less than 20 Mb in size. Due to their small size, microchromosomes are often impossible to distinguish when creating a traditional karyotype, as you see in Figure 1 (larger view):
Scarlet macaws have somewhere between 62 and 64 chromosomes; including 22 macrochromosomes (10 pairs of autosomomes and two sex chromosomes) and between 40 and 42 microchromosomes.
To identify similar regions between scarlet macaw and chicken macrochromosomes, the team used chromosome painting. This method uses fluorescently labeled chromosome-specific DNA probes that hybridise to complementary DNA regions, thereby identifying macaw chromosome regions that are similar to chicken chromosomes (Figure 2; larger view):
As expected, the final completed scarlet macaw genome shows similarities to that of the domestic chicken. However, there are a number of important differences, which are to be expected since parrots and chickens (taxonomic order: Galliformes) diverged approximately 122–125 million years ago. For example, several macaw macrochromosomes (1, 6 & 7) show significant rearrangements. The sex chromosome W shows no similarities at all between chicken and macaw, indicating that this chromosome is changing rapidly and thus, has not been conserved across such a large evolutionary distance.
As typical for other avian genomes studied so far, scarlet macaw genomes are smaller than mammalian genomes.
"The final analysis showed that there are about one billion DNA bases in the genome, which is about one-third of that found in mammals," Dr Tizard explained in a written press release.
"Birds have much less DNA than mammals primarily because they do not possess nearly as much repetitive DNA."
Repetitive DNA has no currently known function. The amount of repetitive DNA varies greatly between taxa: for example, more than 50 percent of the human genome is repetitive DNA [doi:10.1038/nrg3117].
According to Dr Seabury, comparing the scarlet macaw genome to other avian genomes will provide scientists with a better understanding of avian biology.
"The Scarlet Macaw Genome Project opens a variety of doors ranging from modern forensics to determining how the macaws utilize their natural habitat and landscape, as inferred from variable genetic markers," said Dr Seabury in a written press release.
In addition to research into evolution and population genetics, and conservation biology applications, what can we learn from the scarlet macaw's genome? First, even though birds have higher metabolisms than mammals, they enjoy much longer life spans than do mammals with the same body mass. In the case of scarlet macaws, adults weigh somewhere between 1000 and 1200 grams (roughly 2.2 pounds), and they reach sexual maturity at 5 years of age, yet their life span rivals that of humans. By comparing avian genomes to those obtained from other animals, it may be possible to identify which genes contribute to birds' remarkable longevity.
Other genes of interest are those involved in heart and cardiovascular fitness, and those that contribute to the risk for diabetes. But perhaps most interesting are those genes involved with cognition and brain size.
"A preliminary analysis of their genome suggests that [macaws] have a lot of genes involved in brain development", said Dr Tizard in a video press release. "Which fits, knowing how smart they are."
Despite differences from humans in brain development and structure, macaws are much like humans: they are very intelligent and live in highly complex social groups. Additionally, when corrected for differences in body size, macaws' brains are twenty-one percent larger than those of zebra finches, Taeniopygia guttata, which are the model system for vertebrate learning and memory. Thus, comparing the scarlet macaw, zebra finch and human genomes could provide greater insight and understanding into important genetic differences in brain development, structure and volume.Sources:
Seabury C.M., Dowd S.E., Seabury P.M., Raudsepp T., Brightsmith D.J., Liboriussen P., Halley Y., Fisher C.A., Owens E. & Viswanathan G. & Tizard, I.R. (2013). A Multi-Platform Draft de novo Genome Assembly and Comparative Analysis for the Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao), PLoS ONE, 8 (5) e62415. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062415.s019
Treangen T.J. & Salzberg S.L. (2012). Repetitive DNA and next-generation sequencing: computational challenges and solutions, Nature Reviews Genetics 13: 36-46. doi:10.1038/nrg3117
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GrrlScientist is an evolutionary biologist, ornithologist and freelance science writer who writes about the interface between evolution, ethology and ecology, especially in birds. You can follow Grrlscientist's work on her other blog, Maniraptora, and on facebook, Google +, LinkedIn, Pinterest and of course, on twitter: @GrrlScientistGrrlScientist
Red River Women's Clinic, the only abortion clinic in the state, seeks to combat law that they say aims to close it down
Lawyers for the only abortion clinic in North Dakota launched a legal bid on Wednesday to try and combat a new law that critics say is aimed at closing it down and leaving the state without any abortion providers.
The law is one of a raft of anti-abortion measures due to take effect in North Dakota that have already made it one of the most hostile states in the US for abortion. The rule mandates that all doctors performing abortions must have admitting privileges in a local hospital – something difficult to do as they generally come from out of state.
The only abortion centre in North Dakota is the Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo and the court bid is being brought on its behalf by the Center for Reproductive Rights. "We are going to ensure that women's rights are protected with the full force of the law. And we are going to keep the full range of reproductive healthcare safe, legal and accessible to all women," said CRR president Nancy Northup.
North Dakota has recently been at the forefront of a renewed push by anti-abortion activists and politicians across the US. Instead of focusing on the legality of abortion itself, campaigners have instead concentrated on tightening rules and regulations to such an extent that it makes it difficult for clinics to continue operating.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks developments in reproductive health services in the US, there have been some 694 new provisions – 93 of which have been approved – on issues of women's reproductive rights in the first three months of 2013 alone. In North Dakota the new laws have included one of the toughest pieces of anti-abortion legislation in the country, which would ban the procedure after a fetal heartbeat is detected – about six weeks.
Staff at the Red River clinic have already started trying to comply with the law requiring their doctors getting admitting privileges but have run across problems. Of the three local hospitals close to Fargo, indications are so far that local policies on abortion care or the number of patients a doctor must admit will make the law difficult to comply with.
Red River staff have said that the law could force the clinic to close if the court bid is unsuccessful and they say that would be a disaster for local women.
"Without our clinic, women in North Dakota and many surrounding states would be forced to travel hundreds of miles to other states just to get a legal medical procedure," said Tammi Kromenaker, the clinic's director.
A similar law on local admitting privileges brought onto the books in Mississippi last year has been temporarily blocked after a CRR suit was lodged in that state.Paul Harris
Readers answer other readers' questions on subjects ranging from trivial flights of fancy to profound scientific conceptsHas the universe a top and bottom? If it has, which is the right way up?
"Up" and "down" are terms we use to describe our relationship with objects that are having a significant gravitational effect on us (ie Earth). Therefore, whether the universe is the right way up or not is decided by the laws of physics at any given location, and who are we to argue with that?
Our 4D universe does indeed have a top and bottom. The bottom (T=0) was the Big Bang. Space and time curved in, not to a point but to a parabola. There is nothing before T=0 because when you reach 0, whichever way you go, time will increase.
So that is one pole and it definitely exists/ed. What about another? This is the problem of whether the universe is open or closed. An open universe fits some observations, but a newly-discovered principle of the "conservation of information" creates problems. An open universe that accelerates as it expands can create information, violating the principle. I think the universe will turn out to be closed somehow: this furthest reach in time gives you a second pole.
Of course it has! The bottom is underneath us and the the top is above. Isn't it?
Simon Hubert, Hove
If the universe goes down the plug-hole clockwise, it's the right way up. If it goes down anti-clockwise, we're all in trouble.
JeMoiIs The Great Gatsby the great American novel? If not, what is better?
Rather than say greatest, I'll say favourite. My favourite novel is Moby Dick. Great sentences; and throughout the "tangents" that some people complain about, one never loses track of the fact that it is Ishmael (if that's his real name) who is chewing your ear off. He is that wonderful know-it-all with an opinion and a story for all occasions. My favorite form is the short story, but I love this novel. Sometimes I think of it as a set of short stories and re-read some of the chapters in random order.
I don't think there's one Great American novel. But if there is, I'm not sure Gatsby is even the best American novel of the 20s. I always preferred Manhattan Transfer, by John Dos Passos. From the opening, where the processing of immigrants is likened to a mechanical apple press and a newborn infant to a knot of earthworms before the proud father's celebrations see him quietly fleeced in a bar, it's a brilliant, disquieting, beautifully constructed novel.
My preference has always been for the outsiders in American literature: Bukowski, Miller, Fante, Roth, Kerouac, Passos, O'Hara, Burroughs etc, because the American counterculture is probably the greatest contribution the country has offered. Henry James and F Scott Fitzgerald give us a glimpse of the opulence of high-society US, but it is the grubby, railroad-hopping bums and vagrants that really represent America to me. The inverse of the American dream always seemed infinitely more appealing.
CosmodemonCan you be in the wrong place at the right time?
Joe "King" Oliver had the leading band in Chicago in the 1920s. When the Cotton Club opened in New York they wanted him to run the house band, but he decided to stay in Chicago where he was already successful. The job went to Duke Ellington, and it was the making of him. King Oliver's career declined steadily from then on, and he ended up running a roadside vegetable stall. Right time, wrong place.
Richard Glyn Jones, London N4
It is a misconception to assume that there are right and wrong places and right and wrong times, and that fate might dictate which of these we experience. The reality is that there are places and times in which good, bad or indifferent things might occur and when they do this does not represent being in the right place at the right time but merely something happened in a place (neither right or wrong) and at a time (neither good or bad)
Dean Trotter, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex
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Criticism of Angelina Jolie's decision to have a double mastectomy suggests members of the public feel they have a claim to the body parts of other people
Angelina Jolie recently had a double mastectomy after she found she had the gene predisposing her to breast and ovarian cancer. After going public, she received a lot of praise for her decision. However, as she is a celebrity, and this is 2013 so the internet exists to ensure that no examples of mindless idiocy gets ignored, she also received criticism. A lot of this criticism seemed to be from men who were apparently fans of her breasts and weren't happy about them being surgically removed.
Maybe it's unfair to assume that these people believe that Angelina Jolie should have prioritised her ability to provide fleeting sexual stimulation to strangers over her own life. Maybe they had different reasons for complaining. Maybe they're genuinely concerned that a mastectomy would affect her sense of balance, limiting her ability to perform the necessary gymnastics required for another Tomb Raider sequel. Perhaps they genuinely love Jolie in the deepest and truest sense, and were relying on her experiencing an unprecedented but bizarrely specific reaction to oestrogen that affects her ability to think clearly and compels her to leave her children and long-term partner in order to start a new life with an anonymous bloke from the internet, an occurrence that will be rendered less likely (if that's even possible) by the surgical removal of her breasts.
It's possible that they're just purists who are offended by the very notion of breast surgery. I'm sure they're equally outraged any time breasts are surgically interfered with. Outraged!
Maybe they even worry that her philanthropic work will be compromised. Could a sick child in a war-torn region accept charitable medical aid if that aid is funded in part by a woman who used to have impressive breasts but now maybe doesn't quite so much? Did Angelina even consider this possibility when she opted for surgery? She probably didn't. Typical celebrity, only ever thinking about herself and her family when attempting to prevent the onset of a deadly illness.
The above scenarios are, of course, ridiculous. But it's very weird, from a scientific perspective, to observe that some people feel entitled to a say in what happens with parts of a stranger's anatomy.
How does this even happen? Undoubtedly, it's likely to be truer of breasts than other parts. I've written about the societal obsession with breasts before now, and this could be seen as another manifestation of this. It also reflects the modern obsession with celebrities, which often leads those in the public eye to be thought of differently to those who aren't. Consider the phone hacking scandal, which only really got going when it was revealed that the victims weren't just celebrities.
Celebrities are constantly (and consciously) in the public eye. They are invariably there by choice, and reap great benefits from their levels of fame. This is truer for Angelina Jolie than for most, so maybe there is some unspoken rule that you take the rough with the smooth, you accept the benefits but also the negative elements of being a public figure? If this includes strangers claiming part-ownership of bits of your anatomy, then so be it?
It still doesn't make a lot of sense though. The complaints suggest that Angelina Jolie's breasts take priority over her as a complete human being, as if she's less than the sum of her parts.
Secondary sexual characteristics are invariably stimulating, that's what they're for. But they shouldn't have the same effect when presented in isolation. Is the ideal scenario of a lot of men just pairs of autonomous female breasts, moving around independently with no personality or any evidence of conscious thought? I've not seen it, but is that what "Keeping up with the Kardashians" is all about? It would explain a lot.
Some people do have body parts that are bizarrely more famous than them. If Commander Hadfield shaves off his legendary moustache, can we expect similar outrage? How many of today's celebrities could end up with bits of themselves saved for posterity, separate from their other mortal remains?
Kylie Minogue is another high-profile female celebrity and lust-magnet who underwent surgery for breast cancer, but to the best of my knowledge wasn't criticised for it. Maybe it was because her cancer had already developed, so the surgery was a treatment rather than preventive measure? This may be the case, but if she'd had preventive surgery for some hitherto unknown form of "buttock cancer", things would probably have panned out differently.
Angelina Jolie's breasts aren't exactly unknown entities (Google them if you're "interested"); I've heard many words to describe her, but "shy" is rarely one of them. And if you present a "positive stimulus" to people often enough, they end up expecting it, and may even be upset when it is taken away. Has Angelina Jolie inadvertently administered a dose of negative punishment to the male element of society via her surgery?
Obviously it's more complicated than that (I hope), but via a combination of celebrity culture, media saturation and general objectification of women, it is perhaps unsurprising that some people can find their body parts have achieved a fame and worth of their own, and are considered to be public property. It would be foolish to think they aren't aware of this.
At least that's an issue exclusive to celebrities, though. It's not like the average person can expect to have parts of themselves claimed by strangers.
Except, that may actually be happening. One of the worrying aspects (seemingly largely overlooked by Joe Public) to come out of the Angelina Jolie story is that the BRCA gene she possesses, the one that means breast cancer is such a risk, is patented by a US company. This means said company have exclusive rights to tests for that gene, and charge obscene amounts for the test, which is potentially life-saving.
Everyone has genes; your genome makes you what you are (if you exclude environmental factors). So it's a bit galling to be told that certain elements of your genome effectively belong to someone else. Many people rightly criticise this system. It's alarming to think that elements of you, a human being, are technically the property of people you've never met but will charge you if you want to "use" aspects of your own DNA. Some idiotic online comments seem the lesser of two evils when you think about it like that.
Maybe it'll work out though. If companies want to patent genes, they obviously think those genes are valuable. If they pursue this logic, maybe we'll get to a point where copies of those genes can be used to pay the fees they demand to use them. Hopefully, a company charging us to use our genes would have to accept payment in DNA, which means we could end up in a scenario where we pay these companies by sending them samples of our own human waste.
And demanding a receipt.
Dean Burnett is considering selling bits of his body on eBay, with no reserve price. Follow him on Twitter to get updates about the latest offers, @garwboyDean Burnett
Yes there was a barrage of waffle, loads of buzz-words and some 'miracle' treatments on offer – but good advice on offer too
Do you remember a time before anyone coined the term "anti-ageing"; a time when the most a beauty regime consisted of was slapping on some Pond's and a couple of cucumber slices? I don't like "anti-ageing". It's a wrong-headed term that manages to be both negative and misleading – as though the act of ageing represents some kind of personal failure. I appreciate it's catchy from a marketing point of view but can we not be a bit more honest, please? I love a new beauty treatment as much as the next person but to suggest it's going to stop me looking older is just cobblers, frankly. I'm not unhappy with the Invisible face. Admittedly, I wouldn't mind losing the slightly droopy jawline but y'know, that's what happens, in real life, when you're 57. I'm basically a pretty typical middle-ager with slightly complicated feelings about getting older and a healthy scepticism about the more extravagant claims beaming in from the Final Frontier of the age and beauty industry.
To continue the topical Star Trek analogy, I "boldly went" to the Anti-Ageing, Health and Beauty Show and survived to bring you the news that snail slime is your path to a wrinkle-free future, allegedly. You call it "secretions" if you like but I'll stick with what it is – slime. Give snail slime a posh pot, a vaguely scientific name and a hefty price tag and Bob's your uncle: a new chemical-free all-natural "anti-ageing" wonder product. Hah! As if. Do you detect a degree of snook cocking here? Don't you think somebody needs to?
There were quite a few three-figure products in the National Hall at Olympia and yet when you start to ask questions about research and testing and, you know, how the stuff actually works you're likely to get waffle – waffle and buzz-words. Take bee venom "botox" serum. "Poor bees," I thought, "are any harmed in the bee-milking process, or whatever indignity is forced upon them?" It's only what we're all thinking and bees are a finite resource after all. The response was vague, unsatisfactory and not particularly convincing. The mouthpiece for bee venom lost interest in me as a potential customer, probably because I didn't buy the miracle wholesale. I asked about the de-slimed snails too (don't laugh – we need to know these things) and you'll be pleased to know they're all fine as well, allegedly.
Elsewhere in the hall, I was worried and depressed by a Botox and filler "special offer" stand. Why anyone would think it's a good idea to have an injectable treatment there and then, publicly, and without knowing anything about the person providing the treatment (or what it is) I cannot imagine, and yet the queue was round the block. Regulation? What regulation? It can't come soon enough. Thankfully, the majority of stands represented those clinics and companies that specialise in the sort of non-invasive improving treatments that I think most of us prefer and help us to look our best, rather than as though we've been badly embalmed. But enough of the negative – there was, surprisingly (to me anyway) a lot that was good and useful. There were yoga classes, brow bars, cosmetics companies and an interesting schedule of mini-talks on stages at either end of the hall and I enjoyed trying out new stuff, gadgets and gizmos. There was a champagne bar and a chocolate shop (someone's done their research) and there were collagen shots coming at you from all directions.
In the end I stayed three hours longer than I meant to and spent most of my time discussing diet and supplements and taking good care of our whole selves with a number of very good people who were knowledgeable on their subject and didn't try to bluff their way through with a load of flannel, and I plan to come back to some of those in future columns. The atmosphere at this first "anti-ageing" exhibition (there is another planned) was of lively curiosity and I thoroughly enjoyed talking to the women, and men, who had come along because they were interested in making the best of themselves as they are, not least because they had their BS detectors switched on and in magnificent working order.Invisible Woman
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Earth: what a miserable name for our lovely blue planet. Is there any evidence it was ever called anything else?
Peter Warrick, Sonning Common, Oxon
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A debate over food standards with the largest US trading partner could affect what Americans are eating for dinner
As President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron stood smiling for the cameras at a press conference on free trade this week, a secret lurked behind them: the average American couldn't care less about whether the US has a good trade deal with Europe, or whether Europeans buy our products or we buy theirs. With over 12 million unemployed people at home, no one's worried about whether we have enough ripe cheese from France or beer from Germany.
Yet a confluence of events over the past week shows that Cameron's visit is important to Americans. One of the things he and other leaders will be negotiating are what kinds of American food they want brought into their countries cheaply.
Here's why what Europe wants matters: the EU, which loathes American food safety practices, could, by exerting pressure on the negotiations, actually end up improving the quality or variety of food available to Americans.
Right now, the American food supply is an issue of perpetual controversy. Hormones in meat and milk have many families – at least those who can afford organic options – rushing to pay more for a sense of safety.
The US food supply lacks variety: only a few crops dominate and major companies determine the extent and quality of the food supply – and they often prefer genetically modified seeds, bred to withstand herbicides but not fully tested in their long-term effect on human health. As the Guardian reported: "three big companies now control more than half of the global seed market.. … the average cost of planting an acre of soybeans had risen 325% between 1995 and 2011."
Not surprisingly, this corporate pressure has induced American agriculture to favor the kind of crops that corporations can best control: genetically modified crops. About 93% of the soybean seeds in the United States are genetically modified, along with 88% of corn, 94% of cotton and 90% of sugarbeets, which provide about 54% of the sugar sold in America, as the HuffPo's blog has pointed out. McDonald's, one of the biggest buyers of potatoes, has an outsize influence on the shape of the US potato supply. This week, one of its major potato processors, JR Simplot, raised the possibility of growing genetically modified potatoes again.
A lot is at stake: the EU is a powerful economic force and the US's most important trading partner, and this potential trade deal is an important one. It is worth at least $97bn to the United States and as much as $132bn to the rest of the world.
The sheer dollar value of a trade agreement – think of all those lovely dollars that we could use to boost our anemic GDP – means that the EU has financial clout in the US.
In fact, the EU has enough clout to finally convince the US government to clean up America's food supply, long given over to factory farming and the economic demands of agribusiness. If America wants to export more beef, chicken and crops to the European Union, it will have to make better products. The EU won't stand for the ones we're peddling now.
The EU looks down on American food safety and production practices, and with good reason. American meat production is heavily reliant on chemicals, from hormones to chlorine-bleach baths, and European officials and consumers largely reject these treatments and standards.
American farmers and food industry officials find this European exactitude on food practices bewildering, as captured in the comment of Ron Frye, the marketing manager for a Montana ranch, when talking with the Financial Times: "If it's good enough for us it ought to be good enough for them."
The US government is friendly to agribusiness interests; from the supreme court to the State Department, it's hard to find a government department hostile to corporate interests like those of, say, Monsanto. Yesterday, Monsanto won a supreme court case that allowed it to claim a patent on its genetically modified seeds no matter how farmers came by them. The justices ruled that whether farmers come across Monsanto seeds in grain silos, as useless among feed, or from third parties, the company must be paid for its patented seeds.
Monsanto also spurred a legislative provision preventing the government from taking action to stop genetically modified seeds, even if they were found to be harmful to the health of consumers. The GM giant's influence also seems to reach into the State Department, where officials travel the world singing the praises of genetically modified crops.
As Wenonah Hauter, the head of Food and Water Watch, wrote for the Guardian this week:
"We have spent months looking at the extent to which the US State Department is working on behalf of the GM seed industry to make sure that biotech crops are served up abroad whether the world wants them or not."
Her organization, scanning 900 diplomatic cables, found the State Department encouraging US embassies across the world to "pursue an active biotech agenda" and "encourage the use of agricultural biotechnology."
With the support of the government, Monsanto is a key force in American agriculture. Its sells a popular and powerful herbicide, Roundup, alongside the only seeds that are really resistant to it: soybeans named Roundup Ready, for which it charges twice the price of normal seeds. Strong herbicide has led, predictably, to stronger superweeds; now Monsanto is creating seeds that are resistant to even more powerful weedkillers.
The US Department of Agriculture dealt Monsanto a rare blow merely by insisting that its new seeds – the ones resistant to powerful herbicides – require at least another year of examination for safety. The delay was met with surprise.
In the US, Big Agriculture calls the shots; the European Union argues that it shouldn't. A trade deal would be the testing ground for a battle over food standards to play out.
The EU has little love for Monsanto or other chemical companies with a stake in agribusiness, like Germany's BASF. The EU has approved only two genetically modified crops – corn from Monsanto and potatoes from BASF. Even those modest approvals have met cultural roadblocks. Around eight EU, including France, Italy and Poland, have taken steps to ban Monsanto's GM corn. BASF, after seeking approvals for three of its potato varieties in Europe, gave up trying after a regulatory quest that took nearly four years.
All of which tells us that if the US wants to export more agricultural products through its trade agreement with the EU, things are probably going to have to change here, as well.Heidi Moore
Some say our capacity for abstract thought is a cognitive trick, yet this argument undermines itself. Can we trust our reason?
One of the oddest things about evolution is the fact we know that it's true. Odder still is the fact that we think it's important. This knowledge is almost entirely useless for our survival, or at least it has been up until very recently, yet we care about it passionately.
Why on earth (where evolution rules) should abstract truth be so important to us? Why should it be even comprehensible? Why on earth would it be to the advantage of a creature to care about the truth in abstract, or to have a grasp of logic, or mathematics? All these capacities had clearly evolved in us long before they were useful. In fact, in the case of mathematics, and of logical reasoning, you can still find earlier and more primitive versions a very short distance under the rational surface of our minds.
We make most of our decisions "irrationally", as we do most of our thinking, based on biased, short-cut heuristics, something which is only surprising in the light of some contemporary myths about rationality. What's really surprising is that we understand that there are other ways to think, and that these other ways – let's group them for a moment under "logical reasoning" – seem, so far as we can tell, to be timeless and objective truths.
That 200 and 200 makes 400, and 200 times 200, 40,000 are simple statements of truth, independent of whether we would like them to be so or not. Similarly, the laws of logic are there, and work to lead us to correct conclusions, whether we like them or not.
They were all discovered, rather than invented. They are features of the universe, not social conventions like money. This also goes for the facts that scientific theories explain: the world could be mathematically described long before human beings existed, and longer still before Galileo, Kepler and Newton.
Some people, I know, deny this. They would argue that what seem like features of the universe are just helpful cognitive tricks that we have stumbled on and that we have been selected for those cognitive habits without reference to their wider truths. That's clearly how a lot of instincts work: fish, for example, are easily scared by things moving above them without necessarily having any concept of birds, or even people fishing. A footballer can kick a ball or an opponent without the intellectual equipment required of an artillery officer trying to make a shell land on target. But the kind of reasoning needed to reach logical or mathematical conclusions is different in kind from the implicit knowledge we draw on for most of our lives.
I was at a seminar in Oxford last week where these questions were discussed and the most interesting intervention was made by the philosopher Ralph Walker, who argued that the claim that logical consistency is merely a cognitive trick must ultimately be self-defeating, since you can't coherently make the argument that logic is only a cognitive trick without relying on logical arguments, which in turn robs your argument of all its force.
I find this entirely convincing, even if I am not sure of being able to defend it against a sufficiently ruthless attack from a trained philosopher. I could only really defend myself with xkcd.
There is an analogy here with sight. No one doubts that our eyesight has evolved, nor that it is species-specific. We see the world very differently from the ways in which colour-blind animals do, or insects with their compound eyes. Animals with binocular vision see the world differently from those that have eyes set to look out the side for predators. But none of this is an argument that the world we see does not exist. The cat sees a bird on my lawn entirely differently to how I do. The blackbird, in turn, sees the cat in a way I would not recognise, while the worm it's eating doesn't see any of us at all. But the worm, the cat, the bird and I all exist. Our visions of each other are imperfect but not delusional.
I think the same goes for our intuitions about logic, rationality, and arithmetic. The really interesting question is whether the same is true of our moral intuitions or discoveries. It's a central claim of orthodox Christian theology that we can reason our way to the truth in moral questions and this has largely been taken over by the atheists and utilitarians who dominate moral discussions today. I believe it myself. But can anyone actually prove it is so?Andrew Brown