On BioScience and Life and Such

The Age of Age

In Uncategorized on November 12, 2019 at 3:17 pm

In the series “Books I want to write, but can’t because I lack the skills” comes the science fiction novel “The age of Age”. A book about how life changes when biological age substitutes for chronological age.

What happens when you are 18 years old, but your biological age is 15 and you have to wait three years to receive the adult benefits that people around you are receiving, – including the 15 year old brother of a friend whose biological age is 18 ? What happens when a 22-year old male gets juvenile sentencing for his violent crime because his biological mental age is only 15 ? Is it fair that the 65 year old man is denied a surgical procedure because his biological age of 80 makes him too old to medically qualify ?

Bilderesultat for ageing

It is a Science fiction-ish plot, but the technology is near future. I know because one of the projects our lab is involved in is the making of a biological-clock assay based on DNA-methylation patterns. There currently are a lot of these projects…. And consequently calculators for both healthy-life and death …..

All kinds of good things can come out of this of course. My own testimony is a happy one:

I tested my DNA and compared it with some of my frozen 10-year old DNA (yes, as a lab-nerd I have lots and lots of my old DNA hanging around  in freezers).

The old sample was taken just after I had quit smoking. I had been a heavy smoker for many years. So comparing my 10 year-old heavy-smoker DNA and my current DNA, I had only aged 6 biological years in the last chronological 10-year period. It is not unreasonable to conclude that this particular methylation pattern seems like a strikingly good marker for the positive effects from quitting the cigarettes.

With a lab-test that gives you such compelling results, the potential impact on unhealthy behavior is obvious. Also, since you can continuously monitor your progress, you now have a much better tool to measure actual effects on the diet- and lifestyle-changes you choose. That would hopefully put a lot of snake-oil vendors out of business.

But, biological clocks may not be all good. Like any other DNA-test it comes down to how you use the result, … who gets access, and …how they use it. It seems to me that this test is more prone to abuse by authorities or commercial interests, than almost any other genetic test out there.

Not sure of the awareness around this though. I happily share my 23andMe-results or exome-sequencing to almost anyone because I have always struggled to see the damage that can be done to me by misusing that particular data.

I would however be much less willing to share my biological age. I would argue that most science fiction stories depend on some kind of misuse of power, usually within some form of autocratic social structure. The book-idea above however does not require an apocalyptic or tyrannic future. The only requirement for the age of age scenario is to keep the focus we currently have on cost-saving and efficiency in our justice and health systems.

Epigenetic measures of biological age will soon become the best tool to reliably monitor changes you do to your life. Since this is something most of us will probably want to do, there is potential for its widespread use. Keeping your biological age a secret will then become more than vanity,  – it may be the only way to avoid age-discrimination.

Plastic Fantastic

In Uncategorized on September 5, 2019 at 1:44 pm

In my social media feeds, this picture has been appearing a lot lately:

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Image credit, instagram: @guarl351

Because I read “plastic trash” where it says “trash”, my mind entered the following train of thoughts.

First, please do not behave like animals. Animals may not leave plastic trash, but they are extremely unhygienic, and they behave violent towards each other. Why would disease and violence on the beaches be better than (plastic) trash ? For some reason the first solution often launched towards any man-made problem is to return to the natural state of things. But, “natural states of things” involve: Disease, Violence and early Death. Why is that so hard to remember ?

So in moving away from this natural state of things humans invented plastics. Which became so popular we created a pollution problem. This particular problem makes for very descriptive emotion evoking pictures of animals stuck in plastic products like Seals in fish nets and turtles in six-pack holders. Which is bad, and should be dealt with in terms of reducing our consumption of single use plastic products.

But for some reason plastic pollution is bundled together with environmental problems. Over-consumption is a problem where plastic products play a large part, yes. But, consumption is a general environmental problem because the energy spent making new products exhausts our resources and increases the CO2-levels in the air. Plastics as a specific product, is not in itself an environmental problem. It’s a pollution problem. There’s a difference.

Most plastic products break down very slowly. For all practical purposes it’s almost inert. It’s ugly yes, but except for the poor turtle in the six-pack ring, not very harmful.

As a result of its inertness, the carbon (that came from oil and gas originally) in plastics is not released into the air as CO2 unless we actively break it down. Which means that plastic products often are more environmentally friendly than alternative materials like paper. Especially if you reuse it a couple of times and don’t burn it afterwards.

So I’ll end my train of thought by quoting Susan Ruffo who points out another one of the pitfalls we humans constantly happily jump into.

“You know,” she says, “we have a history as a species of solving one problem with great intensity, only to figure out that we’ve created another one.”

And, conclude by appealing to everyone to be human, not succumb to animal behavior like over-consumption, and to keep using the (plastic) solutions that so effectively removes us from the natural state.

Scapegoating

In Uncategorized on August 26, 2019 at 1:41 pm

My father wrote a book. It is about how a bureaucrat in the department for industry in my country was singled out and blamed for a mining-accident in the autumn of 1962. In this particular accident 21 people were killed. The book is in Norwegian, so unless you for some strange reason, are familiar with the language, you just need to go with the brief summary provided in this text.

Due to poor working conditions and I guess, a general lack of focus on safety, there were plenty of other accidents in the 50s and 60s in both the mining industry and other industries.  In my fathers book, which is one of many on the subject, the theory is that a combination of massive attention from the press, the current political climate and economical mining-interests, prompted the need for someone to take the fall for this particular accident. A strategic game was therefore set in motion where the bureaucrat in question was used to shift the blame away from those who were really responsible for the lack of safety: those with potential for political or financial gain.

I had discussed the book with my father many times before he finally sat down and finished it (he had begun working on it many, many years ago). It was a recurring theme in our conversations because it is not only an interesting case, it is a beautiful example of how using a scapegoat can be scaringly efficient. And because scapegoats are everywhere, – it seems we all need someone to blame for any/everything.

A scapegoat (like “the immigrants”, “the jews”, the term “INCEL” or any other cultural/ethnic/religious group/person/expression) is central to so many horrible events in our present and past. The abundance of the phenomenon suggests some kind of a societal/cultural/biological human reflex-response as noticed by thinkers much more schooled in philosophy than me (one of many many refs here). It has its own verb: “Scapegoating“, which can be explained as a societal/psychological responsive act efficiently giving someone else the blame that should have been yours.

Much more more important and scary though: Scapegoating works excellent if you want to avoid fixing the problem at hand with actual solutions. The true beauty/evil of scapegoating is that we fool ourselves into believing that the problem goes away with the elimination of the goat.

It doesn’t. Of course it doesn’t.

Scapegoating is in its essence, very efficient denial. We all need to fight our cultural/biological urge to accept blatant blaming (ha ! alliteration) and look hard at what, actually, in real life, caused the problem.

If I ever write a book, it will be as a sequel to my fathers book. It will explain how we fall victim to scapegoating over and over again. As a society and as individuals. It will include relevant terrifying historical examples of errors to stop us from repeating them. I want it to tell the story of the hero who has understood how he subconsciously feels the need to always blame someone, even when all it achieves, is to serve a bad purpose. It tells the story of how he has found a way to successfully suppress that urge in himself. The book shall inspire us all to follow his example.

I’ll never be talented enough to do that though, so if anyone out there are up to the task: go ahead – you’ll make the world a better place.

And please hurry, we need it soon.

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Memorial at Kings Bay. Photocredit: By Superchilum – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22725527