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By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Carlson
Elof Carlson

In politics we use the term politically correct to describe what we believe is an insincere phrase to hide a harsh reality. Thus to those who object to elective abortions as an act of murder, the term pro-life is favored. To those who feel this is a woman’s decision, the term pro-choice is favored.

What about describing the learning abilities of a child? When intelligence tests used to be applied to all children in public school starting in 1910, terms like feebleminded were replaced by terms like imbecile, idiot and moron on the low end of intelligence quotient measurements and terms like gifted and genius for the high end.

By the 1950s these low-end terms were replaced by the term retarded, but the high-end terms (flattering to parents) were retained. By the 1980s the term retarded was dropped in favor of exceptional child where the term exceptional could be used for any departure from average but usually was applied to what formerly were called retarded children.

There is less argument, however, about physical descriptions of children with disabilities or departures from average appearance or function. I doubt if those who dislike political correctness would want to replace today’s Down syndrome (or trisomy 21) with its original term mongoloid idiocy. Would you rather have your child described as having Tay-Sachs syndrome or its prior description as infantile amaurotic idiocy? Would you rather have your child described as having Hurler syndrome or its original term gargoylism?

In the 1970s terms with racist (mongoloid idiot) or insulting (happy puppet syndrome) connotations were replaced with neutral names, usually the name of a physician who first described the condition or the family in which it originally occurred. The term senile means old (and its root is found in innocuous terms like senior or senator), but in common use for senile we think of the negative side of aging — loss of mental acuity, deteriorating hearing or vision, loss of capacity to smell, arthritic achy joints, impotence, incontinence and a host of degenerative conditions.

I am old but still (fortunately) capable of writing books and articles. While being old is not a blessing, I do enjoy having an income (pension and Social Security) without having to worry each day about going to work. I have time to read lots of books. Nedra and I can enjoy traveling whenever we wish to do so. But I would not say to others that these are my senile activities.

Politicians call these slogans acts of spinning. My English teachers called them euphemisms. Psychologists call the practice reframing. Diplomats call the practice tact. Caring or thoughtful people call it sensitivity. In the vernacular it is about not calling a spade a spade.

Some find it refreshing to use the older terms and phrases because it may disguise or subtly reveal the underlying bias the terms harbor. But sometimes reframing leads to delightful wit like Alban Barkley at the Democratic convention in 1948 who responded to claims that Democrats were bureaucrats. “What is a bureaucrat?” he asked. “A bureaucrat is a Democrat who has a job a Republican wants.”

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Dept.of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

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By Elof Axel Carlson

In preparation for his work on evolution by natural selection, Charles Darwin in the 1850s studied where domesticated animals came from. He went to hobby shows and looked at pigeons in particular to see where they originated. He claimed all the varieties stemmed from one species, the rock pigeon, Colomba livia. Today that origin is known in more detail, with domesticated pigeons described in both Sumerian and Egyptian writings some 5,000 years ago.

An actual effort to look for centers of origin of plants was made by the Russian botanist and geneticist, Nicolai Vavilov (1887–1943). He proposed five (later extended to eight) centers of origins for cultivated plants. To do this he organized over 100 expeditions that he and his students took to Central and Southeast Asia, the Americas, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and North Africa.

In your salad there might be lettuce (Mediterranean), tomato (South America), pepper (South America) and spinach (Central Asia). Your vegetables might include carrots (Central Asia), asparagus (Mediterranean) and maize (South America). For dessert you might enjoy bananas (Indo-Malaysian), apricots (Middle East) and oranges (India). Your cereals might include barley (Near East), wheat (Central Asia), oats (Mediterranean) and rice (Far East).

Humans did most of their domestication of foods from wild ancestors between 5,000 and 15,000 years ago. They shifted from hunting and gathering to farming and used selection to save the seeds of their favored plants and bred their favored animals to produce the hundreds of varieties of living things that clothed them, amused them, protected them and fed them. It was not until the 20th century that the genetics behind the selection process was understood and could be used (especially in agriculture schools) to accelerate the number of varieties of food that we see in a supermarket.

Vavilov became the equivalent of the secretary of agriculture in the USSR and collected 375,000 varieties of seeds that he housed in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). During the siege of Leningrad in World War II, those seeds were protected although several of those protecting them died of starvation.

Vavilov was arrested in 1940 by his foes who did not accept genetics on ideological grounds and he died in Saratov prison. After Stalin’s death, his critics were deposed and Vavilov’s reputation was revived and his home institute was renamed in his honor.

Vavilov was the founder of the first seed bank, and that model became the basis for the first gene bank during the era of molecular genetics and genome sequencing in the late 20th century.

Today the study of the genomes of agricultural plants is a thriving field with the ancestry of each animal or plant type worked out in exquisite detail. It allows geneticists to create new varieties to meet the needs of different environments.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Dept. of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

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Dolly the sheep. File photo

By Elof Axel Carlson

Dolly was a Dorset Finn breed of sheep born in 1996 in Scotland. She was conceived from a nucleus taken from a breast cell of an adult healthy sheep that was transferred into the cytoplasm of an egg of a different breed whose nucleus had been removed.

Dolly was the first successful live-born lamb out of about 250 tries. She was named for Dolly Parton. Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell were the scientists who constructed her. Dolly began developing arthritis at age 5 and died a year later showing signs of old age. Normal life expectancy for a Dorset sheep is 12 years. It was thought that the cloning nucleus from the donor Dorset sheep passed on its age to Dolly at birth and that this led to her premature aging. That turned out to be false.

Kevin Sinclair, a developmental biologist in England, obtained four live clones from the breast tissue that was used to make Dolly. The successful live-born sheep were named Debbie, Diana, Daisy and Denise. They are now (2016) 9 years old and in perfect health.

Cloning is still inefficient and more failures (mostly during early embryonic stages) occur than successes. Success with dogs in Japan has led some pet owners to pay for a cloned twin of a favored aging pet. In Dolly’s case an electric shock was used after the transfer of the nucleus to stimulate the cell to divide. For some embryologists a series of transfers to fresh enucleated eggs is required to achieve success.

Why most fail is not known, but the field of epigenetics may supply some of the answers. Genes are coated chemically by the organism in body tissues. Normally, in males and females these coatings, which regulate whether genes are on or off, are removed in the testes or ovaries where reproductive cells are made. I do not doubt that in a decade or so scientists will learn to do that in a test tube or Petri dish. Will that technology be used commercially? Very likely. Prize race horses and beef or milk cattle could be cloned if the success rate was about 70 percent. It will probably not be better than that because natural fertilization fails in about one third of fertilized eggs, a substantial part of that being extra or missing chromosomes when sperm or egg nuclei are produced.

Living things are very complex and the chance of getting almost 100 percent “perfect” cells is virtually impossible to achieve. That is why many couples attempting to have children often take months or years before they become pregnant or seek help from an in vitro fertilization clinic.

The success of Dolly’s cloned sibling sheep worries some medical ethicists that, if applied to humans, this could be abused by narcissistic personalities who want to clone themselves. So far that hasn’t happened and many countries (and states in the U.S.) have banned cloning using human tissues. For those who enjoy watching (and betting on) horses, it raises an interesting idea. If races were eventually done with cloned champions, it would favor the training over the breeding as the basis for who wins. Imagine a field of a dozen cloned Seabiscuits and trying to figure out whose training was the best.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

Most market tomatoes are recent varieties created in university and commercial farms since 1940. Stock photo

By Elof Axel Carlson

The tomato is botanically a fruit or more specifically a berry. We think of it as a vegetable because of its use in pasta sauces, soups and stews. The Supreme Court in 1893 ruled that for taxing and tariff purposes, it is a vegetable because of its usage in cooking.

The tomato belongs to the species Solanum lycopersicum. Thus, it belongs to a family of some 3,000 species worldwide. But tomatoes arose and were cultivated in the Andes and made their way to Mexico where they were domesticated. From there they were imported to Europe in the 15th century.

Because they are classified as members of the Solonaceae family, which includes the deadly nightshade, they were sometimes regarded as poisonous. But the domesticated tomato varieties began appearing in Spain, Italy and England and soon spread as far as China, which is now the world’s largest consumer and producer of tomatoes.

The tomato gets its name from the Aztec word “tomatl.” Until 1940 the domesticated tomatoes throughout the world came from the Mexican varieties the Spanish brought back in the late 1400s and early 1500s.

The tomato plant cell has a total of 24 chromosomes, and its pollen or ovules have a chromosome number of 12. Their genome was not worked out until 2009, and a comparative study of 360 varieties and species of tomatoes was published in 2014. The pre-1940 tomato varieties for food had very few of the mutant gene varieties found in the wild species in South America (less than 10 percent).

Thus, most market tomatoes are recent varieties created in university and commercial farms since 1940.

The farmers buy hybrid seed, and tomato seed companies make sure that their seeds are hybrid to keep farmers from planting crops from the tomatoes that are harvested. This was a policy first started by agribusiness for hybrid corn beginning in 1908.

The genomic analysis of tomatoes and their related species give an evolutionary history of tobacco, then peppers, then eggplants, then potatoes and finally tomatoes as the sequence of species emergence. The molecular insights into plant genomes, by sequencing their genes, have led to a controversial field of genetically modified foods.

One of the first was short lived. I remember buying “Flavr Savr” tomatoes in a supermarket in Setauket. The manufacturer had inserted a gene for delayed ripening and thus longer shelf life in stores. I could not tell any difference in taste or texture from those manufactured by inserting genes from other varieties of tomato plants.

Just as people in the 1500s feared tomatoes when first introduced into Europe as likely to be poisonous (they weren’t), the fear of genetically modified foods led to their quick demise in the market. Today it is almost impossible to buy foods (grains, vegetables, fruits, fish, fowl, or livestock) that are guaranteed to be free of genetic modification.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

By Elof Carlson

I recently had the pleasure of reading Lee Standlin’s “Storm Kings,” a short work on the history of weather forecasting and how scientists tried to figure out how storms form. The book begins with Benjamin Franklin’s discovery that lightning is electricity. I learned that Franklin was quite a showman as he toured Europe and the Colonies, showing his experiments with electricity.

I knew that much earlier people tried to interpret weather as the acts of gods. For the Norse, Thor was the god of thunder. For the Greeks, Aeolus was the deity who blew gale winds and caused ships to crash and sink under gigantic waves. For the Bible, Genesis describes the “waters above” and the “waters below,” distinguishing oceans from drenching rains as two separate creations of water.

In “Storm Kings,” we follow the bitter controversies of nineteenth century scientists who attempt to explain storm formation. Each participant is hostile to the ideas of rivals and theories collide with the ferocity of storms. But out of those debates, the Army Signal Corps was formed and established first, a series of flags to indicate weather for ships at sea and then, telegraph accounts of weather readings — temperature, barometric pressure, clouds, wind speed and direction — sent to military bases around the United States.

Politics played a role in the rivalry of contending candidates for heading up the Signal Corps and politics limited what it could forecast. Tornadoes were taboo because acknowledging them or determining their frequency would lower land values in the Midwest. The Signal Corps was cut back, had its operations shifted to the Agriculture Department and was renamed the Weather Bureau so it could be more effectively monitored by lobbyists.

After the Civil War, science began to change. Weather was seen as a complex physical process and weather fronts were identified. The collision of warm moist air from the south and cold dry air from the north led to line storms and tornadoes in the Midwest. It was not until World War II that a more thorough weather forecasting was allowed for the Weather Bureau.

What distinguishes the history of weather forecasting as a science from evolution in biology as a science is the relative absence of religious objections to the interpretation of storms and weather phenomena.

Disasters are still thought by some as visitations from God to punish the wicked. But no one would ban the teaching of the physics of storm formation or cloud formation in classrooms.

Astronomy and physics are also downgraded by some religious writers who deny the idea that objects can be more than 10 thousand light years away or that some elements in the earth have a radioactive decay rate measured in millions of years.

The brunt of the attack on science, however, is evolutionary biology, because it deals with life, and we humans are alive and aware of that existence. Most people have no clue what is meant by light years, radioactive half-lives of isotopes of elements, or the dynamics of ocean currents, wind patterns, and rising or descending masses of air. Unfortunately, almost all major religions have their origins hundreds or thousands of years ago when science was relatively new or altogether absent and the religious texts of those times reflect this.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

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By Elof Carlson

For the past four years I have participated with a writing group at Indiana University’s Emeriti House, where old-timers like me gather and once a month discuss what we have written. I much enjoy listening to the stories told.

A Norwegian opera singer described his youth near Oslo on an island in a fjord and how that idyllic childhood was shattered by the Nazi occupation. A linguistics professor discussed what it is like to eat with one’s hands in Kathmandu where table manners are very different than the world of knives and forks or chopsticks. A Spanish teacher described her adventure learning how to chop wood with a wedge. A journalism professor described sailing a boat alone from New England to Florida and back. Along the way we learned that some growing up experiences were frightening, especially those who were refugees during WWII in the Baltic states.

A different opportunity arose recently when my daughter Christina located the granddaughter of my Uncle Charles Vogel. I had seen him a few times as a child when my mother would visit him at his home in Brooklyn. He sold clothing door to door and he gave me about a dozen ties so I could wear them to my high school. My mother said he sold to gangsters. I never knew if this was part of my mother’s psychotic beliefs or real, but I downloaded this previously unknown relative’s manuscript called “Charlie’s story” based on a 1985 interview she had with her grandfather. It turned out he sold men’s clothes to Al Capone, Gaetano Luchese, Lucky Luciano and Albert Anastasia. He also survived a disastrous childhood accident in Bound Brook, New Jersey, when he was hit by a car that had him hospitalized for a year. Later he ran away to join the Barnum & Bailey Circus until his father located him. These family stories are usually oral and then forgotten after a couple of generations. But if someone types them up after an interview, they can be part of the delight of tracing our ancestors and seeing how things change over several generations.

Social history decays rapidly, and many of us have only scattered memories of our childhood. We know virtually nothing about our grandparents’ or great grandparents’ lives. If we have our DNA examined for selected genetic markers, we can identify different ethnic components (Asian or African or Middle Eastern or Native American). Each person who has a European ancestor is related to virtually every person in Europe if one goes back 2,000 years (something difficult to do for those who do not have a royal lineage).

All Native Americans in the western hemisphere are related to ancestors who lived in eastern Siberia about 15,000 years ago. The genetic crumbs of information of this past ancestry tell us little about who these people were and what they did. But what we preserve as memoirs can last for many generations delighting our descendants. Every time I open up a volume of Samuel Pepys’ diary the world of the 1660s shifts from history to eyewitness narrative.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.