A Q&A with The Atlantic’s Ed Yong

The author of a New York Times bestseller on microbes talks to us about science writing and blogging.

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Ed-Yong-1

[This post originally appeared on Science Borealis.]

Following his recent keynote address at the Canadian Society of Microbiology conference in Waterloo, Ontario, my Science Borealis colleague, Robert Gooding Townsend and I chatted with Ed Yong, author of the New York Times bestseller, I Contain Multitudes, about getting started in science communication, using humour in your writing, and whether science blogging is dead, among other topics. Here is that conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

RGT: You were a judge at BAHfest [a science comedy event], and you use humour in your work all the time. I’m wondering, how do you see humour as fitting into the work that you do?

EY: It’s never an explicit goal. I’m not sitting here thinking to myself, “I need to be funny”, but I think I’ve always taken quite an irreverent approach to most of the things I do, science writing included. I think that sometimes there is a view that science writing should be austere because science is a little bit like that, and I think that’s ridiculous. It benefits from a light touch, just as anything else does, and that’s sort of the approach that I very naturally gravitate towards, and not taking things too seriously.

EZ: Your own blog has now ended, and notably, the SciLogs network has been shut down over the last year. I was wondering if you think that the heyday of science blogging is over now and do you feel that newsletters like yours may be the next big thing for sci-comm people, despite being somewhat less interactive than blogs?

EY: You know, there’s been a lot said about the death of blogs. I don’t necessarily think that’s true. I think that in the goodbye post to my blog I noted that I thought that blogs had just shifted into a new guise. The Atlantic was always a pioneer in fusing that kind of bloggy voice with the traditional rigours of journalism, and even back when I was blogging, before I joined the magazine, much of what I was seeing online had much the same depth of personality and voice that the best blogging I read had. So, I think those worlds have always been colliding, and I think that collision is now well underway, and a lot of what made blogs special has been absorbed into mainstream organizations. […] I think the spirit of blogging is very much still alive, and as for newsletters, I don’t see these things as the same. They’re different media. I started my newsletter just as a way of telling people about the work I was doing elsewhere. You know, the newsletter is not a blog; I’m not producing any original content for it, I’m just using it as a signpost so people can find my other work.

EZ: When you say that the voice that you see in mainstream media has become more like blogging, do you feel that it’s gotten a little less formal and more conversational?

EY: I don’t mean that it has across the board, but I think there are definitely publications like the Atlantic that have fused those things together. We have space for a lightness of touch in the way we write, provided that we’re still upholding the strictest journalistic ethics and standards.

RGT: One of the things you do very well in your work is that you maintain a high standard of journalistic integrity. That’s incredibly important, but I also wanted to probe how you face these challenges in science journalism. For example, there’s the question of how much are you trying to do good in your reporting, and how political an action is that? How do journalistic and scientific impartiality differ, and do you get caught in between?

EY: I think as journalists, we are not crusaders. We are definitely not advocates. The objective of my work is not to celebrate science, it’s not to get people on board with science, whatever that might mean. I’m not calling for more science funding or anything of the kind. What I am doing is telling people what is going on. I think obviously, all journalists have their own biases and their own starting points from which they approach the world. But I think we’re not chasing some artificial standard of neutrality. I think what instead is more important is being fair. […] If I’m going to write a piece slagging off one particular approach to science or debunking a lab’s work, I’m going to reach out to those people for their comments as well. I think that very much is just part of what we do. I don’t see any conflict there.

EZ: You’ve talked in the past about the importance to your career of having won the Daily Telegraph‘s Young Science Writer prize in 2007. I was wondering, now that both that contest and the Guardian Wellcome Trust are no more, do you have any advice for a beginning science writer to get their writing out there and build a reputation?

EY: That prize was important to me, but if you talk to a wide variety of science writers, you’ll see that there’s not any one route for getting into the field. […] If you do a Google search for “On the Origin of Science Writers“, you’ll find a page on my now-defunct blog which collects stories from different science writers about how they got into the business. It’s a useful resource, and I think one thing you’ll notice when you read those stories is that there is no single route that everyone takes. It’s all very, very diverse. So I think the critical thing with the competition was that it forced me to write and prove myself. Now, there are different ways you can do that, but the really important thing is that, if you’re interested in making a start in this business, you need to actually start producing things. You need to start writing. My advice to people who say that they’re aspiring science writers is that there really is no such thing – you’re either currently writing about science, right now, in which case you are a science writer, or you are not, in which case you’re not.

RGT: In your recent keynote address at the University of Waterloo, you talked about the representation that you strive for in your stories, in terms of the gender balance and racial background of your sources. This is an important thing in terms of who we see when we see people in science. One thing that you haven’t talked about, at least there, is how this has affected you personally, as a person of colour. Are you comfortable saying anything about how that may have affected your progression in science journalism?

EY: I’m not sure I have anything massively useful to say. I wouldn’t say I’ve experienced obvious discrimination on the basis of that, and I’m not sure it’s affected my career in any particular way. It is something you bear in mind. When I go to journalism conferences and sci-comm meetings, these are still largely white spaces, and that does make a difference in terms of how you feel as a part of that community. In Britain, there is another science writer called Kevin Fong, who’s amazing and does a lot of radio and TV work. Kevin and I have this running joke between us, because we’ll turn up at events, and people will come up to me, and say congratulations, for the thing that Kevin did, and vice versa, because the idea of TWO East Asian science writers working in the same spaces is just clearly too much for some people to comprehend, so you know, there is that, and it’s not fun, and it happens often enough to be annoying. It’s a very mild example of the kinds of problems that can happen when you have a lack of diversity in a field, and that’s certainly the case with science journalism as much as it is for science itself.

RGT: You’ve talked about finding stories about topics that most people find very boring, and turning them into this very interesting and engaging story. If that’s a power that you have, does it come with responsibilities? For example, if you think that climate change is an overwhelming threat, then distracting from that is detrimental. Where do your thoughts lie with that?

EY: I actually really don’t buy this argument at all. I think there’s no department of ranking all the world’s problems in order and then dealing with them one at a time. That’s not how people think about problems. That’s not how people react to the world around them. If we worked in that way, then, for example, I might never write about anything other than, say, the rise of fascism or climate change, or antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or what have you. [I don’t think we write or read about things] because they are necessarily important or they pose existential threats. I think we write about things because they are interesting to us.

EZ: Thank you very much for your time today.

EY: Thanks, guys. Pleasure talking to you.

Redesigning Life

John Parrington’s new book sets the stage for an informed debate on genetic modification

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This post originally appeared on Science Borealis

“Imagine if living things were as easy to modify as a computer Word file.” So begins John Parrington’s journey through the recent history and present-day pursuits of genetic modification in Redesigning Life. Beginning with its roots in conventional breeding and working right up to the cutting edge fields of optogenetics, gene editing, and synthetic biology, the book is accessible to those with some undergraduate-level genetics, or secondary school biology and a keen interest in the subject. This audience will be well served by a book whose stated goal is to educate the public so that a proper debate can take place over the acceptable uses of genome editing.

 

Parrington doesn’t shy away from the various ethical concerns inherent in this field. While he points out, for example, that many fears surrounding transgenic foods are the result of sensational media coverage, he also discusses the very real concerns relating to issues such as multinational companies asserting intellectual property rights over living organisms, and the potential problems of antibiotic resistance genes used in genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Conversely, he discusses the lives that have been improved with inventions such as vitamin A-enriched “golden rice”, which has saved many children from blindness and death due to vitamin deficiencies, and dairy cattle that have been engineered to lack horns, so they can be spared the excruciating process of having their horn buds burned off with a hot iron as calves. These are compelling examples of genetic modification doing good in the world.

 

This is Parrington’s approach throughout the book: both the positive and negative potential consequences of emerging technologies are discussed. Particular attention is paid to the pain and suffering of the many genetically modified animals used as test subjects and models for disease. This cost is weighed against the fact that life-saving research could not go ahead without these sacrifices. No conclusions are drawn, and Parrington’s sprawling final chapter, devoted solely to ethics, is meandering and unfocussed, perhaps reflecting the myriad quagmires to be negotiated.

 

Weaving in entertaining and surprising stories of the scientists involved, Parrington frequently brings the story back to a human level and avoids getting too bogged down in technical details. We learn that Gregor Mendel, of pea-breeding fame, originally worked with mice, until a bishop chastised him for not only encouraging rodent sex but watching it. Mendel later commented that it was lucky that the bishop “did not understand that plants also had sex!” We’re told that Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, known as the father of microscopy, was fond of using himself as a test subject. At one point, he tied a piece of stocking containing one male and two female lice to his leg and left it for 25 days to measure their reproductive capacity. Somewhat horrifyingly, he determined that two breeding females could produce 10,000 young in the space of eight weeks.

 

The applications of the fast moving, emerging technologies covered in Redesigning Life will astound even those with some familiarity with modern genetics. The new field of optogenetics, for example, uses light-sensitive proteins such as opsins to trigger changes in genetically modified neurons in the brain when light is shone upon them. In a useful, yet nevertheless disturbing proof-of-concept experiment, scientists created mind-controlled mice, which, at the flick of a switch, can be made to “run in circles, like a remote-controlled toy.” More recently, sound waves and magnetic fields have been used to trigger these reactions less invasively. This technique shows potential for the treatment of depression and epilepsy.

 

The book goes into some detail about CRISPR/CAS9 gene editing, a process that has the potential to transform genetic modification practices. This system is efficient, precise, broadly applicable to a range of cell types and organisms, and shortens the research timeline considerably compared to traditional methods of creating GMOs. It underpins most of the other technologies discussed in the book, and its applications seem to be expanding daily. In the words of one of its developers, Jennifer Doudna, “Most of the public does not appreciate what is coming.” These words could be applied to almost any technology discussed in this book. Already within reach are so-called “gene drive” technologies, which could render populations of malaria-bearing mosquitos – or any other troublesome species – sterile, potentially driving them to extinction, albeit with unknown ancillary consequences. Researchers have also developed a synthetic genetic code known as XNA, which sports two new nucleotides and can code for up to 172 amino acids, as opposed to the usual 20. Modifying organisms to contain XNA opens up the possibility of creating proteins with entirely novel functions, as well as the tantalizing prospect of plants and animals that are entirely immune to all current viruses, due to the viruses’ inability to hijack a foreign genetic code for their own uses.

 

While the book touches on agriculture, its main preoccupation is medical research. Despite many of the therapies covered being far from ready for use in humans, one can’t help but feel that a revolution in the treatment of diseases, both infectious and genetic, is at hand. Only a year ago, gene editing was used to cure a baby girl of leukemia by engineering her immune system to recognize and attack her own cancerous cells. In the lab, the health of mice with single gene disorders such as Huntington’s disease and Duchenne muscular dystrophy is being significantly improved. Writing in 1962 in his book The Genetic Code, Isaac Asimov speculated that someday “the precise points of deficiency in various inherited diseases and in the disorders of the cell’s chemical machinery may be spotted along the chromosome.” Some 54 years later, we have the technology not only to spot these points but to fix them as precisely as a typo in a manuscript.

The Bloodhounds of the Plant World (Cuscuta sp.)

(Via: Marine Science)

Common Names: Dodder, Goldthread, Witch’s Shoelaces

A.K.A.: Genus Cuscuta

Vital Stats:

  • Approximately 200 species
  • Part of the Convolvulaceae family, which includes morning glory and sweet potato
  • Only 15-20 species are considered to be problematic crop parasites

Found: Throughout temperate and tropical parts of the world

It Does What?!

We’ve discussed a few parasites on this blog already, and they’ve all been pretty typical of what comes to mind when we think of parasitic organisms- tiny, malignant little creatures that invade the host’s body, steal its resources, and, in some cases, eat its tongue. But when we think ‘parasite,’ we don’t usually think ‘plant.’ As it turns out, there are an estimated 4500 parasitic species just among the angiosperms, or flowering plants. Among them, dodders have to be one of the strangest.

Found nearly throughout the world, these vine-like plants begin as tiny seeds that germinate late in the spring or summer, after their potential host plants have established themselves. The young seedling has no functional roots and little or no ability to photosynthesize, so initially, it must make do with what little nutrition was stored in its seed. This isn’t much, so the plant has only a few days to a week to reach a host before it dies. To better its chances, the dodder stem swings around in a helicopter-like fashion as it grows, trying to hit something useful.

Much more impressive is the plant’s other method of finding suitable hosts- a sense of smell. Recent research has found that, uniquely among plants, the dodder can actually detect odours given off by surrounding plants and grow towards them. In experiments, the seedlings were found to grow toward the scent of a tomato, even if no actual plant was present. What’s more, they are capable of showing a preference among hosts. Presented with both tomato plants, which make excellent hosts, and wheat plants, which make poor hosts, seedlings were found to grow toward the aroma of tomatoes much more often. Like herbivores, they can use scent to forage amongst a variety of species for their preferred prey.

Smells like lunch… even to other plants.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Once a host plant is found, the dodder begins to twine itself around the stem and to form haustoria (singular: haustorium). These are like tiny tap roots that pierce the host’s stem and actually push between the living cells inside until they reach the vascular system. Once there, the haustoria enter both the xylem (where water and minerals move upward from the roots) and the phloem (where sugars from photosynthesis move around the plant). From these two sources, the dodder receives all its nutrients and water, freeing it from any need for a root system, or even a connection to the soil. And since it doesn’t need to capture solar energy, all green pigment fades from the parasite, and it turns a distinctive yellow or red colour. Leaves aren’t necessary either, which is why the plant is essentially nothing but stem, explaining its common name of “witch’s shoelaces.”

Not what you want to see when you head out to weed the garden.
(Via: County of Los Angeles)

Once it gets comfortable on its new host, the dodder can grow at a rate of several centimetres a day (impressive for a plant) and produce stems of a kilometre or more in length, quickly overrunning an area. It can also attach itself to additional hosts – hundreds, in fact – which is problematic, because at this point it becomes the plant equivalent of a dirty shared needle. Since the vasculature of the hosts is connected, any virus present in one host can be freely transferred to any other. This ability, coupled with its affinity for potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, and several other important crops, makes dodder a major nuisance for many farmers. And since it’s able to regenerate from just a single, tiny haustorium left in a host plant, it’s really hard to get rid of. There’s always a flip side, though; in some ecosystems, dodder can actually maintain biodiversity by preferentially parasitising the more competitive plants, allowing the weaker ones to survive. It seems dodder may also be the Robin Hood of the plant world.

[Extra Credit: Here’s a video showing how dodder can completely take over a group of nettle plants, complete with ominous soundtrack. Narrated by the fantastic Sir David Attenborough.]

Says Who?

  • Costea (2007-2012) Digital Atlas of Cuscuta (Convolvulaceae). Wilfred Laurier University Herbarium, Ontario, Canada
  • Furuhashi et al. (2011) Journal of Plant Interactions 6(4): 207-219
  • Hosford (1967) Botanical Review 33(4): 387-406
  • Pennisi (2006) Science 313: 1867
  • Runyon et al. (2006) Science 313:1964-1967

    Cuscuta: 1, Acacia: 0
    (Via: Wikimedia Commons)