Monday, October 31, 2011

Bio-Art: Frankenstein.

Halloween has a lot of potential for bio-art. We can pick on gummi organs, gross Jell-O molds, and other such things until the zombie cows come home. Instead, I decided to go a more classic route this Halloween. Without further ado, this Halloween focuses on the first work of science fiction ever: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Frankenstein was the brainchild of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. One rainy summer in Geneva, Switzerland, Mary Shelley, her husband Percy, and a few other writers were in a lodge and exchanged ghost stories- soon challenging each other to write their own scary stories. Mary Shelley had a waking dream where she saw a doctor reanimating the dead, then wove it into what she thought would be a short story.  Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus was published as her first novel two years after its conception in 1816.

Frankenstein starts off with a sea captain, Robert Walton, on a trip to the North Pole. His goal is to look for scientific advances that will lead him to fame and fortune. (Click back to my first ever bio-art entry on Jurassic Park and tell me if any of this sounds familiar to you.) Unfortunately for him, his ship gets frozen in ice, leaving the crew to live off of rations and watch the icy nothingness outside.

While in the freezing Arctic, Walton catches a glimpse of a huge man on the ice. Another man, this time more normal in stature, is seen on the ice a bit later. The smaller man is Victor Frankenstein, who has been pursuing the monster of a man across the ice. The captain lets Victor in and promises that he will help catch the strange man.

 The doctor tells Walton about his own pursuit of knowledge. Using ancient sciences, Victor Frankenstein rebuilt a human, only to realize that he had pushed too far. Instead of making a beautiful, perfect human, the result is a walking, talking, 8-foot-tall humanoid with yellow eyes and thin skin. Unsurprisingly, the good doctor flees his own lab.

Probably what Shelley had in mind.

Despite trying to live a normal life, Victor is constantly pursued by his lab experiment. As revenge for being abandoned, the creation kills everybody that Victor holds dear. Nobody is spared after Victor refuses to create a female for the monster. Victor is thus compelled to hunt his creation until the scene in the Arctic. Victor dies, and, shortly after, so does his creation. Walton thinks better of continuing his expedition and turns back after his ship is unfrozen.

What started as a horror story on a rainy night has become one of the most beloved science fiction stories of all time. It also kick-started the science fiction genre as a whole (oh how I love the Romantic era). The tale of the science-made monster gone wild has been filmed and toyed with so many times that Frankenstein's monster has become a recognizable face in popular culture.

The one most of us know. Hey, at least I didn't go for the cartoony versions.

The book's monster is more than a monster - he is a nameless human who is literally shocked into life, then abandoned. He does not know his own strength at first. He is intelligent, he can talk, and, like most humans, he gets very lonely. The monster, who is never given a name, is easily the most likeable character in the book.

Despite all of the motif's popularity, science has already done worse than raise the dead. Sure, the resurrected creations have not become sentient yet, but, well...tell me that the clip below does not look like an abomination already.

In Soviet makes you?

As Jurassic Park aptly pointed out, science moves without ethics or responsibility. It's like inherited wealth in that, once one has the knowledge, one can do whatever one wants with it. Make a two-headed dog? Why not? I would get into the religious implications, but that's not what this blog is for. Victor Frankenstein recoiled at his own creation because he knew he had gone too far, as had Captain Walton. Happy Halloween.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Creature Feature: Woolly Bears.

Oh! Look at that. It's a piece of somebody's Halloween costume that got left out in the woods.'s...moving?!

That moving chenille stem is actually a caterpillar of the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). Tiger moths are found all over the world, as are their animate pipecleaner larvae. Their fuzzy larvae, called banded woolly bears, are usually out in fall, which is somewhat rare for caterpillars. They are America's most recognizable caterpillar, enough so that Ohio gave them a festival.

Like all caterpillars, woolly bears eat vegetation. They can eat any and all kinds of vegetation. They may ingest certain plants to prevent flies from laying eggs in them, but these things are not monarch larvae. They will not hurt you if you pick them up - if anything, they will play dead, acting even more like a craft project leftover than they were before.


Woolly bears hatch during the fall. Just like real bears, they have evolved to hibernate during winter: their skin contains natural antifreeze that prevents the little caterpillar from dying. Come springtime, they wake up and eat any plants they can find while they are abundant. They become moths and mate during the summer.

Much like how groundhogs have Groundhog Day, the woolly bear has a weather-related superstition. Depending on the measurement of the red band, there may be more or less severe winter for the year. (It makes more sense to do this in Fall than in February - sorry, groundhog.) If the red-brown band on a woolly bear is thick, the winter will be mild. If not, well...happy Halloween.

From Flickr.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Creature Feature: Large Flying Fox.

Well, Halloween is fast approaching. So too is the freaky Theme Week starting on Halloween. You all have waited very patiently for it, so prepare for a horror the likes of which you have never seen before! *Insert evil laugh here.*

Until then, we have a classic fixture in Halloween decor: A giant bat.

This is NOT a sparklebat.

This particular bat, a Large Flying Fox (Pteropus vampyrus), is the largest bat in the world. It is also called the Malaysian Flying Fox, Greater Flying Fox, or Kalang. It is native to Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. There are many species of flying foxes, but they all have a few things in common: They have almost doglike faces, cannot echolocate, are usually threatened, and can scare the excrement out of small children.

Don't let the "vampyrus" in its name fool you- these bats do not suck blood and are definitely not vampires in disguise. Megabats like the flying fox feed on nectar and fruit. The bats serve as pollinators in their native habitat, meaning that the giant bats have the same ecological function as bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. One of those things is not like the others, but hey, whatever works.

The Large Flying Fox is, well, large. Although it weighs only 3 pounds, that's a lot for a bat. It also has a wingspan of up to 6 feet. They eat in groups of up to 50 individuals and are very noisy; put together an image of 50 giant bats all in the same place for some real Halloween material!

From Superstock! :D

Due to much of its habitat being in danger, the Greater Flying Fox is considered near-threatened. Farmers may kill them, seeing them as crop pests. There's another reason for this bat's sudden decline in population, but, well...let's save that for next week.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"They Actually Eat That:" Worms.

The potential entries for eating bugs will never end. Humans will eat anything, and land-bound invertebrates are actually an awesome source of protein. What better time to open another can of worms than the Wednesday before Halloween?

Thanks, China. And

Every child in America has heard about "that one kid who ate worms." Somewhere, on the playground, there was a child who ate worms. This probably cemented his future as a freak in the carnival. Most of us stuck with gummi worms and just joked about eating worms from that point on.

Like many invertebrates, however, earthworms have become fashionable as an alternative meat source in the States and Canada. Most of global warming is caused by livestock, not gasoline! If backyards are any indication, worms are easier to farm than cattle or swine, and nature treats them as whole foods already. There's no reason why humans, the one animal that eats ANYTHING, cannot do the same.

Great way to break the ice at parties! (

As per a site specializing in annelid cuisine:

"Earthworms have received considerable attention in the press recently as an excellent and potentially economical source of human food. From all accounts, they are a nutritious addition to human diets. Besides being high in protein, they are entirely edible, with no bone or gristle to throw away, and their subtle, earthy flavour lends itself well to all sorts of delightful dishes."

Come to think of it, the absence of hard parts does give worms an edge over shellfish. Slimy yet satisfying? It sure sounds like it!  The site linked above even has a few tips for acquiring and cooking one's own worm cuisine, should you feel so inclined to have a unique appetizer for your Halloween party.

Why go for the gummis this Halloween? Real worms are better for one's health!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Creature Feature: Swine Flu.

It seems like there's always some nasty disease threatening the world thanks to mankind's increased air travel capabilities and our own infestation of the planet. SARS, bird flu, and swine flu were all characterized as "OMG DEADLY" diseases that could whack even those in industrialized nations at any time. These scares are often blown out of proportion. Soon, we will not even be able to get colds without having a news story about it.

CALL THE PRESSES! (From iStockphoto.)

Viruses are great survivors. We could debate about whether viruses are alive or not until the mad cows come home with their non-living prions, but as one of the most primitive life forms, viruses have an amazing capacity for mutation. They swap DNA more often than bacteria, which should be enough to give most people shivers. That the common flu can evolve around vaccines is enough to make Walgreen's offer them every single year. Heaven help us if viruses ever find ways to cross the species barrier.

Oh, wait. Viruses cross species pretty regularly. Rabies is a good example, infecting many mammalian species with the same disease, but swine flu puts it to shame. Strains like H1N1 really gets around when it comes to infecting other species. 

Swine flu (in recent memory, H1N1) is notorious for not only infecting pigs, but also infecting humans and chickens. Pigs, uniquely, can get avian sicknesses. Several pig farms in China and other parts of Asia tested positive for avian flu half of the time. Swine flu crosses not only the species barrier, but also the wall between mammals and birds. Careful of "when pigs fly" statements; you may find yourself doing the impossible once these crazy viruses start giving pigs wings.

Like this, only with better graphics.

So is swine flu really that dangerous? (Wiki says it's worse than smallpox.) 

The short answer is "not anymore." The World Health Organization ("WHO") declared the 2009 pandemic officially over. Even then, most of the people who died from it had some conditions beforehand, such as pregnancy, leukemia, and lymphoma, that compromised their immune systems. Most 'normal' people will treat swine flu exactly like they would the regular flu - by staying in bed, developing antibodies, and watching TV shows online. Most cases of swine flu are very mild. In other words, it still sucks, but was not really worth the hysteria the media put into it.

I lov-ed you, piggy! I lov-ed YOOOUUU!

Swine flu is more harmful to pig farmers than it is to people who do not work with pigs on a regular basis.  This may be common sense, but any animals that are packed together in one place are prone to getting sick from each other. The humans are not the only ones at risk. Some farms have lost over 65 million dollars from swine flu outbreaks; consider that karma.

Swine flu epidemics resurface every time humans think they're on the top of the world and lose their immunity to the virus. Expect it to pop up again. If we ever have a rabies epidemic, however...I TOLD YOU SO. The Chihuahuas did it!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Bio-Art: Giant Microbes.


Awww, how cute! It's pink! It has a cute piggy snout! It looks like Munna from Pokemon! It's...swine flu.

Yes, you, too, can get swine flu in the cutest form possible: A pink plushie with red eyes and an adorable little piggy snout. This cuteness was made possible by, a group that makes numerous bacteria, viruses, and creepy crawlies at millions of times their natural sizes...then goes the extra mile and makes them even cuter by playing with the names and/or functions of the microbes.

GIANTmicrobes was founded in 2002 by Drew Oliver. He got the idea after reading some memoirs about Richard Feynman's  fascination with the bustling microbial world.  Oliver was sure that kids would be just as fascinated by this strange world that was just a microscope viewing away, but little kids and lab tech do not make a good mix, especially when ebola is one of the specimens in question.

Name a mildly popular disease and there will be a plushie of it. GIANTmicrobes has rabies, ebola, mad cow, the Black Death, West Nile, flesh-eating bacteria, and even malaria (which I have GOT to get!). Aside from diseases, they have other unicellular things like blood cells, egg and sperm cells, copepods, and bookworms. They are all equally adorable, so no matter what your favorite disease happens to be, rest assured that it has been made too cute to handle.

Go ahead. Buy one.  They're contagious.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Creature Feature: ???????

This entry will be short and sweet.  I just finished a review for one of my classes and am slowly trying to prevent myself from becoming a cultural reject and Google whore. So, instead of acting like I know everything... tell me what that is. Call it a dragon, a naga, or a solar flare - I'm curious about this one. I call it a new world being born; what do you call it? :)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Creature Feature: Red Spitting Cobra.

What would a month marked by the most magical, creepy holiday around be without at least one snake? While we're at it, let's make it one that was more or less built to intimidate, even if you know nothing about snakes already:

From here.

The red spitting cobra (Naja pallida) is one of those poisonous snakes that just looks menacing. It's native to eastern Africa, and, like most snakes, feeds on rodents. It also eats other snakes like the larger king cobra. This cobra happens to be blood red, so you know it's cool.

Spitting cobras do not really spit their venom. Instead, their fangs are designed to spray venom. They usually do not bite humans, instead preferring to aim straight for the eyes. Their aim is to blind their enemies, not kill them. In the wild, blindness can easily mean death, especially if one happens to be a visual hunter like a lion:

 (This doesn't look like a red spitter...but you get the idea.)

That lion was fairly close. Spitting cobras have a spray range of up to 2 meters, so do not anger the snakes from afar, either. As the video said, they have evolved very good aim. If the venom reaches the eye, it may cause corneal swelling and permanent blindness. A regular bite has neurotoxins and hemotoxins, and requires proper medical attention ASAP. Yeah, the same goes for any cobra.

From Wiki. :)

Spitting cobras, probably of the Egyptian variety, inspired the uraeus, the cobra so often found on Egyptian headdresses. The uraeus snake, a symbol of the primordial goddess Wadjet, was said to grant the Pharaoh divine authority. According to legend, it could also spit fire from between the pharaoh's eyebrows. We fail to see a part of that image that is not awesome.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Creature Feature: Goliath Birdeater.

We at the blog should be scaring you all silly during the month of October. Then again, we should be trying to do that all the time, making this month not very special at all. That means we have to try extra hard for the rest of the month, so expect every spell ingredient in the book to get its own blog page.

Yesterday was a newt. Today... a MASSIVE spider.

The Goliath birdeater (Theraposa blondi) is the second largest spider in the world. It has a legspan of up to a foot. It is native to the Amazon rainforest, which is a good place to avoid if you are easily intimidated. There are enough deadly animals there to fill a whole week's worth of entries. This spider is not among them.

The Goliath birdeater does not eat birds at every meal. Most of its diet consists of invertebrates. The name comes from a Victorian report of this spider eating a hummingbird - in other words, small bird, big spider. Due to its size, Goliath can consume a number of vertebrates, including birds, lizards, bats, and venomous snakes. Depending on your specific set of phobias, a spider that eats snakes may be more or less terrifying than one that does not.

Luckily, this super-spider is not harmful to humans. Its bite is only as bad as a wasp sting. Worry more about the hairs it sheds in defense; those will irritate your skin. Again, this is not nearly as badas one would expect from such a large spider.

Arachnophobes, you got off easy. We've already covered most of the nasty Australian stuff for you.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"They Actually Eat That:" High-Fructose Corn Syrup.

Health news online makes everything sound bad for you. Hell, even eating soy decreases fertility. Going to the supermarket is quickly becoming "pick your poison." The amount of bitching derived from your choices is entirely dependent on which poison you pick, even though 90% of the things one can possibly buy are horrible for you.

For example, all non-white sugar sweeteners are manufactured, unknown white stuff that you put in your coffee. They are not in the least bit natural. Even refined white sugar comes from bone char, which itself sounds like something out of a horror flick. We in America are sugar addicts, so no matter how bad the price, we will look into alternative sources of sugar. (Note: this will not be the last that you see of fake sugars.) 

That brings us to the biggest, baddest not-quite-sugar source of them all: High-fructose corn syrup.


High-fructose corn syrup is in everything. Sodas, snack foods, and cereals are very likely to have HFCS. Ice cream bars, including some WeightWatchers varieties, have HFCS in there eight times out of ten. Even things that do not need HFCS have HFCS. It's silly how common it is, and its sheer abundance has people worried.

The exact level of danger HFCS presents is up for debate. The theory that has people's knickers in a twist says that, as with several other fake sugars, HFCS is not processed normally by the body. It (theoretically) increases appetite and converts into fat faster. Actual research results range from "just as bad as normal sugar" to "the government adds mercury every few milliliters." Both sides have research to back up their claims, although research by the corn farmers is certainly slanted.


What all nutritionists will agree on is that the sheer amount of this pseudo-sugar adds a million unnecessary calories. That alone makes it a threat. The real trick here is that HFCS, along with several other science-y names, are really just codewords for sugar. If it ends in "-ose," it's a sugar. If one of those words is at the top of the ingredient list on something you were hoping to purchase, run like hell.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Creature Feature: Rough-skinned Newt.

"She turned me into a newt!...I got better." - Monty Python's Holy Grail.

Of all the creepy things this blog has covered, we have not covered newts. We have had a few neotenic salamanders, but newts are noticably absent. What, a major spell ingredient, missing? Not in my October!

That said, the Rough-skinned Newt (Taricha granulosa) is one newt that even the most stoned witch would not put in her cauldron. It is native to the Western coast of North America and probably the most lethal creature there after Katy Perry's outfits. Like most newts, it eats insects and has plenty of natural enemies.


This newt is lethal. Its skin secretes tetrodotoxin, one of the single most deadly toxins in the natural world. It should sound familiar if you have ever looked into fugu poisoning, the blue-ringed octopus, or even triggerfish. If ingested, this newt will almost certainly kill. We do not think that California is one of the environments you think of upon hearing "deadly poisonous animal," but nature loves trolling humanity.

The rough-skinned newt's poison has an unlikely counter. Of all things, the common garter snakes in the newt's habitat are the only things that can eat the toxic not-lizards. These are not impressive snakes to look at, but they have evolved such that the binding feature in tetrodotoxin cannot work its deadly magic. The two are in an arms race so fierce that the snake keeps evolving stronger and stronger counters to stronger and stronger pufferfish poison.

So yeah. If you touch this newt, you will not get better.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Bio-Art: Formaldehyde?!

Art is meant to spark controversy. Modern art in particular really plays with what it means to be art. "But is it art?" can be asked of almost any modern art piece, especially when it comes to mixing art with science.

Damien Hirst is a British artist famous for a number of biological art pieces. He is a 46-year-old man still living in Britain. Among other things, he pioneered the "Britart" trend of the 1990's. He even designed a piano for Lady Gaga. We'll be seeing this guy again.

For now, though...

Yes, that is a real shark. No, it is no longer alive.

Damien Hirst looooves doing things in formaldehyde. Besides this shark, he has done preserved art with cows on several occasions, sheep, and dogs. There will be more of him in future weeks, but for now, know that he wandered a tiny bit into hubris territory by plating a cow's horns and hooves in 18-karat gold. Of course he put it in formaldehyde. 

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is one of Hirst's many formaldehyde pieces. It was commissioned in 1991 by one Charles Saatchi, who apparently had nothing better to do than get his name attached to an undead shark. The tiger shark itself cost 6,000 British pounds. The whole display cost 50,000. Whatever floats your boat, Saatchi...whatever floats your boat.


As per the reeaaaalllyyy long title, the shark is supposed to be so lifelike that it can inspire fear even after death. Small wonder; if you saw a 14-foot shark up close and personal, you would probably flinch. The first shark decayed after a while in its original gallery, and, after being replaced in 2006, was temporarily moved to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. It left there in 2010, making one wonder where the giant shark is now.

You could almost say Hirst jumped the shark. Naaaah...let's not. He probably still has a few ideas left.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Creature Feature: Marabou Stork.

Quick, tell us all you know about storks. If the media are to be believed, storks are kinda like herons, only pure white. They may or may not bring babies in little white bags. Overall, they're pretty harmless birds...

AAAH! AAAHH! What the hell is THAT?

That is a Marabou Stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus). It is native to south-Saharan Africa, but most of the time, you will remember it as "that really ugly-looking bird" if it appears in a documentary on African wildlife. Like vultures, Marabou Storks are scavengers, explaining their rather menacing appearance, but they will also eat most small reptiles and birds if available. They are also called "undertaker birds."

If you have ever been in a fabric store, you have seen the word "marabou" before. "Marabou" describes the fuzzy, fluffy feathers that one sometimes sees in yard-long feather boas. Chances are that no storks were harmed in the making of your feather boas, but real marabou down is sometimes used in fishing lures and (probably expensive) fashion items.

Marabou Storks are some of the largest birds that aren't ratites. They stand around 5 feet tall, which is not comforting when walking alongside the Grim Reaper in bird form. Their dark wings spread almost as wide as those of the Andean Condor - both in the range of 10-10.5 feet. Bottom line: This is one big, scary bird that will make sure you never see storks the same way again.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Creature Feature: Cranefly.

Mosquitoes suck. They spread malaria and a bunch of other unpleasant diseases, those bites itch like crazy, and they're just annoying. It almost makes one wonder if they're worth keeping alive to preserve the ecosystem. Man, if they were any bigger, we'd be in trouble...

Who is naming this daddy long-legs?

No, that is not a genetically-enhanced mosquito. That is a crane fly, a bizarre type of bug also called a "mosquito wolf" or "mosquito hawk." They belong to the family Tipulidae and live almost everywhere. No, they are not dangerous, but no doubt their similarity to mosquitoes has led to a lot fewer craneflies in the world.


Crane flies can usually be found lurking on screen windows. They stay there, motionless until you try to swat them off.  Most adult crane flies either eat nectar or nothing at all. As with many insects, the adults exist only to mate and die.


Adult crane flies are not harmful at all. Their larvae, however, may cause some turf damage. The wormlike babies are called leatherbacks or leatherjackets and basically look a lot like short, rubbery earthworms. The most they will do is eat your lawn from the roots-up. Some of them are also aquatic. Even then, it's not like they're Japanese beetles or anything.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"They Actually Eat That:" Giraffe.

Africa is probably the most filmed place on the planet. It has lions, leopards, elephants, gorillas, and most of the other big mammals little kiddies want to see. African animals are so popular that whole movies have been made with them as stars.


Oh, and giraffes, the ridiculous-looking tree-munchers of the savannah, are the source of an extremely popular drug in Sudan. Plant-based drugs such as weed and tobacco are banned in Sudan, so as you can imagine, they are always looking for ways to get high. We aren't sure if giraffes qualify as easy, but they sure do seem to work.

A drink called umm nyolokh is made from the bone marrow and liver of giraffes. Despite the name, no eldritch beings are harmed in its creation. (It is EXTREMELY hard to find good information on this drug; most of what the internet yields are drug forums.) The inner parts of the giraffe contain DMT, a psychedelic chemical found in plants and mammals. The stuff that causes the trip of umm nyolokh is the exact same substance that South American shamans use to go on spiritual journeys. It has oooone difference: The spiritual trips from giraffe bits ALWAYS lead to the location of more giraffes.

One drink of umm nyolokh is supposedly enough to get people hooked on hunting giraffes for life. We do not know who first figured out that giraffes were a good source of psychedelic chemicals, but they hit on a gold mine. The drug tells you where to get more of itself! It does, however, mean less giraffes for nature shows.

It probably looks EXACTLY like this.

There are probably also giraffe steaks somewhere with less trippy effects...but who would want that?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Creature Feature: Seriemas.

It's hard to find weird birds. Most people consider birds so normal that we at the blog have to go out of our way to find bizarre avians to fit the bill. Well, we think we found one this time, but perhaps the readers should be the judge of that:

The Red-legged Seriema or Crested Cariama (Cariama cristata) is among the few extant cursorial predators. It is native to the grasslands of South America, including Brazil and central Argentina. They eat anything from snakes and rodents to insects. Although it is hard to tell at first glance precisely what makes the seriema so weird, that it has only one other extant member in its family says a lot.


Seriemas are the closest living relatives of the ancient, avian predators that came after the dinosaurs. Commonly known as terror birds, these massive, flightless predators were once the top dogs in North and South America. They could grow up to three meters in height and were probably swift runners. If nothing else, that beak meant business.


Even if the modern seriemas are closely related to terror birds, they have traits that remind us more of Velociraptors from Jurassic Park. Not only are these birds curious and presumably intelligent, but they have a nasty little sickle claw. This claw is used for fighting with each other as well as tearing apart prey items that are too big to swallow whole. Still think that dinosaurs are extinct?

Seriemas also have a very strange song.  Ever wonder what a small-ish dinosaur might have sounded like? Now you know!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Bio-Art: Gattaca (1997).

Ah, the future. What wonderful possibilities tomorrow holds! Genetic diseases are all but obsolete. Trips to far-off moons happen every day. Science has made breeding a thing of the past. Now your job is determined by your genetics, and -

Wait a tick. Something sounds wrong about that.


In the Gattaca universe, natural birth, while not unheard of, is a rare occurrence. Now, most babies are conceived by in-vitro - the new 'natural' way. Natural babies are considered chronically ill, and are called "in-valids," "uteros," or "faith-births." People born in-vitro are called "valid" and are destined for cushy jobs from birth.

A typical party for those with "normal" genetics.

Vincent, the protagonist of our story, is an in-valid. He showed predispositions for manic depression, ADD, and almost certain heart defects from the moment he was taken out of the womb. Even a small cut was considered worrisome. Insurance would not cover flesh wounds. After hearing how much crap his child would have to go through, Vincent's father made sure that the baby would not have his name.

His brother, however, had every single disease weeded out, from fatal heart dysfunctions to addictive tendencies, baldness, and obesity. Anton, named after his father, even grows faster than Vincent. It is clear that his parents love him more than their conceived son - and Vincent knows it, even as a child. His parents do not even let him sit at the same dinner table as his perfect brother.

Things get worse when Vincent tries to get a job as an astronaut. In this future, a good resume is not enough; one must have the genetics to back it up. The movie describes people with inferior genetics as "a new underclass." Just what the elite want! Even with his inferior genetics, Vincent gets a job at Gattaca, one of the premier facilities for space launches. The only problem is that he's cleaning their floors and toilets instead of going up in a spaceship.

Through some shady dealings, Vincent manages to procure the bodily fluids - blood, urine, the whole shabang - of a genetically-perfect man named Jerome. The only reason this guy is not working is that there is no gene for luck or fate. Genetics won't prevent random back accidents. Such an opportunity is exactly what Vincent needs to get into space.

Most of Jerome's bags are filled with vodka. So much for eliminating addiction.

People who pose as healthy individuals like Vincent/Jerome have a stigma attached to them as well. They are called "borrowed ladders" and "de-gene-rates" - emphasis on the "gene" in that last one. Luckily for Vincent, few suspect him...

...except when the mission director to Titan dies. The investigation makes Gattaca a death trap for invalids as people investigate the bloody murder. One bad eyelash is all it takes to get the inspectors on Jerome/Vincent's case. This sends the whole facility into a flurry of rapid genetic tests - all of which Jerome/Vincent manages to dodge. In the end, Jerome/Vincent is proven innocent, and gets to go up into space like he always wanted.

His actual printout was at least 20 pages long.

There are a number of clever little things about Gattaca. For starters, the title is made entirely of letters potentially found in DNA: G, A, T, C, from the nitrogen bases Guanine, Adenine, Thymine,  and Cytosine. These letters are also highlighted in the credits. There are also a few other biological in-jokes, such as a "borrowed ladder" referring to a faked DNA helix. It just goes to show how a society like that would incorporate biological terms into its vocabulary. "Cloning," "GMO," and "splicing" are some real-life examples of science affecting the general wordbank.

The movie's main point, however, is that gene discrimination is an inevitable side-effect of genetic research. The director of Gattaca coined the term "genism" - the theory that all human capacities are determined by genes. The future in Gattaca presents "discrimination down to a science." Creepy.

There are also some situations in which eradicating diseases via genetics just won't work. Often, bad traits are in a population for a reason. Wikipedia uses sickle cell anemia as an example; although crippling when someone has two alleles for the disease, the heterozygous form (Hh) prevents malaria. While not all genetic disorders are good, SCA does show how messy things can get. The sooner eugenics becomes standard, the sooner the human race gets wiped out.

If you're looking for a good sci-fi movie that will make you think, watch Gattaca one weekend. It's not a flashy movie, and some of the acting is off, You'll get a tiny bit depressed, but also feel a nice little glimmer of hope that Orwellian conspiracies never give. As molecular biologist Lee M. Silver said, "Gattaca is a film that all geneticists should see if for no other reason than to understand the perception of our trade held by so many of the public-at-large."

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Creature Feature: Deathstalker.

If you were shocked by the title, you are probably expecting something epic. Without looking the creature up, you probably think that it has skulls, a scythe, or, better yet, flaming skulls and a scythe. The name is that appealing to fans of "darker and edgier." Hell, why isn't this creature blessed with its own heavy metal band, yet?

It already has a B-movie.

Thing is, most venomous animals don't roll that way. Often, the deadliest things are tiny, inconspicuous, and sometimes even cute. The same goes for the deathstalker - you will NEVER see it coming.

From Wikipedia. :)

That's the deathstalker (Leiurus quinquestriatus), the deadliest scorpion in the world. It is native to Israel, Pakistan, Egypt, and other blisteringly-hot, politically-intense areas in that range.  Like most scorpions, it feeds on insects. Watch out for your shoes if you wander into its range.

The deathstalker has the most potent venom of any scorpion. One sting from it contains no less than 5 different neurotoxins. The sting is extremely painful and should be treated as a medical emergency. Antivenin availability varies from place to place, with French and German pharmaceutical companies making it regularly, but NO support from the USFDA. Even with a name like "deathstalker," the sting is only usually fatal to the immune-challenged.

Of course, people want this bugger for more than just antivenin. Along with those neurotoxins, valuable chemical agents dwell in the deathstalker's tail. Chlorotoxin, a peptide, has been shown to help tame brain tumors. A few other chemicals might regulate insulin, making this little scorpion a lifesaver to diabetics.

This does not mean you should keep this scorpion as a pet. Deathstalkers are by no means a beginner's scorpion, but are often sold to anyone willing to pay anyways. Some smart, yet ruthless person figured out that people interested in arachnids miiight just want something called a "deathstalker," regardless of how dangerous it actually was.

NARBC Oct 8 2011 Coverage.

Now to use my blog for something that, surprisingly, I have never used it for before: Covering a local animal-related event. Every year, the North American Reptile Breeders Conference (and Trade Show) comes to Tinley Park, a slightly richer suburb than my own. I usually spend way too much money there. This time I got off easy with a new cage setup.


Right outside the convention hall, much to my surprise, was Bubba, the world's tamest alligator. He supposedly takes commands from his owner, which I have yet to see, but remains super-calm around people regardless. This is not the first time I have seen Bubba; we first met in, of all things, a summer school course. He comes to ReptileFest from time to time, too. I could have sworn he died a while back; after clicking around, maybe Lucky the alligator took his place. Still about as peaceful as an alligator can possibly be.

No sooner did I start prowling the floor when I found a baby snake to squee at.  This little fellow is a Ladder Rat Snake, a type of snake native to France and Italy. They were 125 apiece. I don't have a snake from Europe, yet; wouldn't it be neat to have a snake from 6/7 continents, then track the lore that goes with them?

Of course, this was not just a snake convention. They had frogs, turtles, lizards, albino Woopers axoltols, and probably a few newts that I missed.

For the non-snake people, here's a table with leo geckos. That's a lotta leos! They had every color and pattern of Leopard Gecko out on display. Some went into the thousands of dollars if they had a few good genes in them. Ball pythons are still more expensive...

...yeah. Like that. This is one of the more outstanding morphs, mind, and others were still pricier. There was a ball python there called a 'sugar' that had just the slightest hint of speckling on his skin. That was the morph. It cost 400 bucks.

Hypo Burmese Pythons. They look like the kind that, if bred together, can produce 15 feet of pure white, scaly awesomeness. I'd want them IF I could handle a Burm at this point.

SHIROHEBI! Well, sort of. The Iwakuni Shirohebi cannot be taken out of that particular area; this is a male Kunisir albino Japanese Rat Snake alongside a potential het mate.

These stripes should look familiar if you follow my deviantART account! They belong to the Thai bamboo rat snake above, simply called "coxi" in shorthand.

I love albino retics!  Alas, as with Burms, monetary constraints suck.

You would NEVER guess this guy was a cobra if his sign didn't say so.

"Hello, ol' chap. If you let me out of this little plastic cup, I could save you lots of money on car insurance!"

More where that came from. Hope to take more next year, when I will HOPEFULLY have my own money.