A radio programme about gene editing

by Matthew Cobb

I’ve recently made a BBC radio programme about gene editing, a new form of genetic manipulation that generally goes by the name of the acronym CRISPR. Over the last 3-4 years this technique has taken biological and medical research by storm. Clinical trials of therapies for patients suffering blood-born genetic diseases may be only a couple of years away. Although the prospect of ‘designer babies’ excite ethicists and the media, I think a bigger issue is posed by the prospect of CRISPR-based ‘gene drives’.

Gene drives are techniques for spreading genes through a sexually-reproducing population, which can very quickly affect every organism. These are the approaches that some people are suggesting would be a way of stopping diseases transmitted by certain species of mosquito, by rendering all the mosquitoes sterile (and thereby making them disappear) or by altering them so that they cannot host the malaria parasite, or they cannot detect their human prey).

Clearly, things could go wrong, and we could find ourselves doing serious damage to the ecosystem. For the moment, there are no international regulations to control this kind of work, even though many of the scientists involved are keen to see such a framework.

In the radio programme, which only lasts 30 minutes, I explain how CRISPR works, talk to some of the people who developed CRISPR, and to those who are seeking to apply it, both in humans – there is a moving interview with the mother of a young boy with Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy, who founded a charity to support research – and in insects. The theme is the scientific, ethical and ecological implications of this amazing new technology.

The programme, which is called “Editing Life”, will be on BBC Radio 4 at 11:00 am UK time, tomorrow morning, Tuesday 9 February. There will also be an article in The Guardian, which I’ll link to tomorrow. In March there will be an extended version, consisting of two programmes, which will go out on the BBC World Service.

You can listen to the programme live here, from anywhere in the world. If you miss the programme, you can catch up with it here, again from anywhere in the world.


A real ceiling cat!

The photo and notes below come from reader Judy:

Sasha has learned to walk on the screen cover of our patio. We are the staff of our resident ceiling cat. Please feel free to use this photo of her magnificence when you wish.
Sasha Ceiling Cat
And, with some judicious cropping, you can get this:
Sasha Ceiling Cat

The great cat escape!

by Matthew Cobb

I don’t care if it’s a fix, or from a film, or anything.




How to photograph cats!

JAC: As I said, posting will be light this week, though Grania might start some discussion threads, and I expect people to PARTICIPATE! In the meantime, today is shaping up to be a cat-post day. I am in the small village of Denton, near Olney, visiting friends. Some spectacular wines on tap for dinner tonight.  Matthew, though, has contributed a post

by Matthew Cobb

From one of my favourite and most eclectic Tw*tter accounts, @PulpLibrarian.

Walter Chandoha has been taking photos of cats for 70 years! Aged 94 he is still snapping away, and has a website where you can buy copies of his cat photos (and others). He published a book of his cat photos in 2015, and was interviewed by Wired magazine, who described him as ‘the godfather of cat photographers’. [JAC: Walter’s daughter Paula was the official photographer of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard when I was a grad student, and she took some fine photos of gels for me.]

And now a word (or three) from our sponsor, Puss n Boots cat food:

Don’t they use candles any more?

Click on the screenshot below to go to the Guardian article:

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 2.54.28 PM

Isn’t the Pope supposed to be environment friendly?

h/t: Steve

Monday: Hili Dialogue

Good morning everyone; greetings from a miserably grey, rainy Ireland. Grania here again to post today’s Hili (and friends) as PCC(E) is otherwise occupied for now. Fortunately, we have a panoply of advice and deep thoughts from our four-footed cousins to help cheer us up for the working week.

Hili: Come on.
Cyrus: Just a moment, I can’t ascertain who was here.


In Polish:

Hili: Chodź już.
Cyrus: Zaraz, nie mogę się zorientować, kto tu był.

And Leon is being very regal, if a little fanciful this morning. It suits his serious demeanor.

Leon: It’s me, Leon. Not any stupid princess on a pea.

leon princess

Reader Anne-Marie sent in a photograph of a squirrel.

Shakespeare once wrote: “The common curse of mankind, – folly and ignorance (…)”
And I would add “not feeding pet squirrels”.


Reader Taskin sent in a picture of the beautiful Gus, with this advice to Jerry, who was waiting for his delayed flight.

Okay, so when they’re about to open the gate, Gus wants you to line up like this and then RUN!


Now, onward and upwards!




A smart cat and a brave cat

Click on the screenshot to see a brave cat, in a video posted on George Takei’s Facebook page:

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 1.38.42 PMh/t: Barry, Keith

I have landed

It was a long and tiring flight to England. Not only was our plane more than two hours late in leaving Chicago, but we also had to wait for a half an hour once we landed until a gate became open. After that it becomes pure Heathrow Hell: the arrival hall at Heathrow’s international terminal (terminal 5) is a house of horrors, with only a handful of immigration agents servicing a horde of tired and antsy travelers. Hurry up and wait an hour! I still think Heathrow is the worst major airport I’ve ever visited.

On the other hand, I watched several good movies on the plane, including “Suffragette” with Carey Mulligan (well worth watching, Meryl Streep has a cameo), and “Everest“, recounting the 1996 mountain disaster described in Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into Thin Air. (It’s a movie well worth watching if you like mountains and climbing; I loved seeing the Everest region again, my favorite place on Earth, even though the story is horrific and heartbreaking.) Out of curiosity, I also watched “Amy“, a documentary about the singer Amy Winehouse (by the way, she lived in Camden Square next door to my biologist friend Steve Jones, who used to complain bitterly about the paparazzi). Packed with clips from Winehouse’s life and a lot of her live performances, I found it fascinating and sad.  I knew little about Winehouse, but found her a terrific jazz singer. A great pity about the drugs. . .

And then on to Oggsford, where it cost 24 pounds to take the one-hour bus ride from Heathrow. That’s always the first indication that this country is, relative to the U.S., expensive. Average salaries are lower here, but transportation and food are either on par or even higher than U.S. prices. It’s a good thing there’s free medical care and good government services. I haven’t yet had my first pint, but I shudder to think what it costs these days. I’m guessing about four pounds.

Still, the medieval spires of Oxford glowed gold in the special sunlight that follows a morning thunderstorm, and it’s good to be here. I’ve had a proper cup of tea with ginger biscuits (“cookies” to us Yanks), a reminder that England still bests the U.S. in the biscuit department.  Among many, there are cow biscuits, Boasters, McVitie’s chocolate digestive biscuits, ginger biscuits studded with chunks of candied ginger, fig rolls, and my favorite: Garibaldis, also known as “squashed fly biscuits” (see below). For those who turn up their noses at the food here, read Orwell’s “In Defense of English Cooking.

I know what I’ll be looking for: good pub lunches, fish and chips, Indian food by Euston Station, and a big hunk of Keen’s Farmhouse Cheddar to take home.


Garibaldis, or “squashed fly” biscuits, a favorite of British drosophilists


A new report on female genital mutilation in Indonesia

Indonesia is, of course, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country (there are 207 million people, 95% of them Muslim). As such, it’s also the country having the most cases of female genital mutilation (FGM). A new Unicef report on that practice, as reported in the New York Times, gives some surprising news, some bad news, and some good news.

The surprising news, at least for many of us, is that even in Indonesia, often touted as a “moderate” Muslim country (I’m looking at you Reza Aslan), FGM is common; in fact, it accounts for almost a third of the world’s cases:

There has long been anecdotal evidence of the practice there, but the United Nations Children’s Fund estimated Thursday that 60 million women and girls there have been cut based on national survey data collected by the Indonesian government. The addition of Indonesia is largely responsible for raising the global tally of women and girls who have undergone the practice to 200 million from 130 million, and the number of countries where it is concentrated to 30 from 29.

We knew the practice existed but we didn’t have a sense of the scope,” said Claudia Cappa, a statistics specialist for Unicef, which released the report. She said the new data from Indonesia showed that cutting was not just “an African problem.”

Well, we already knew that, as FGM is widespread in the Middle East as well, concentrated in Muslim societies. It’s not just “an African problem” divorced from religion, nor just a “cultural problem”, as maintained by charlatans like Aslan. As Heather Hastie has shown on her website, FGM, while not totally limited to Muslims, is largely a Muslim issue, since many schools of Islam either endorse it, recommend it, or deem it obligatory. And its prevalence in Indonesia is, as the Times notes, explained by Islam:

The data from Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, provides a snapshot of the prevalence of genital cutting in a country where secular and religious attitudes toward the practice are increasingly in conflict. Indonesian authorities tried to ban cutting 10 years ago, but religious authorities who consider it important for girls to undergo the ritual before marriage objected. In response, the government softened its stance, issuing regulations that directed cutting should be done only by medical professionals in a noninvasive way that does not injure girls and women.

. . .The practice is “regarded as part of our culture, or a confirmation that they will be officially ‘Islamized,’ ” Jurnalis Uddin, the chairman of the Center for Population and Gender Studies at Yarsi University in Jakarta, said in an email, adding that the practice “in Indonesia is mostly symbolic (no cutting at all).”

. . . Rena Herdiyani, vice chairwoman of Kalyanamitra, an Indonesian nongovernmental organization that lobbies the national government to ban all forms of cutting, wants the government to impose sanctions on people who perform circumcisions.

“They think it’s a family or cultural tradition, and an Islamic obligation, yet they can’t name any verses in the Quran about female circumcision,” she said.

The only good news is this: instead of the barbaric mutilations involving excision of the labia or entire clitoris, the practice in Indonesia often involves, as noted above, non-invasive surgery, sometimes removing only a sliver of the clitoris. But it’s still unnecessary, and the Indonesian government is still bowing to Muslim dicta that mandate this surgery:

Conflicting views have influenced public policy toward cutting. In 2006, the Ministry of Health issued a document banning female circumcision by medical professionals. In response, in 2008, Indonesia’s top Muslim clerical body issued a nonbinding fatwa or edict saying female circumcision should be performed if requested, as long as the method was not physically or psychologically dangerous.

In 2010, the Ministry of Health, at the urging of the clerical body, issued a regulation saying female circumcision should be performed only by licensed doctors, midwives or nurses using safety and cleanliness procedures detailed by the ministry. But anti-cutting activists objected to the regulation, and in 2014 it was repealed. Unicef officials assert in their report that the repeal does not go far enough because it does not explicitly prohibit cutting or set penalties for those who perform the procedure.

This is one issue that should unite feminists of all stripes with anti-theists. Here we have a government refusing to ban a totally unnecessary and dangerous surgery on women, and that refusal comes solely from pressure by Islamic “authorities.” Sixty million women in Indonesia have undergone FGM—almost a third of all the nation’s women—and it’s time to stop it. But that won’t occur until the government either grows a backbone, Islam disappears from the world, or the various schools of Islam explicitly forbid the practice.

Bad Sneakers

If you’re a regular, you’ll know I’m a big fan of Steely Dan, a band that always performed fantastically in the studio but was pretty bad live. Here, though, is one of their best recordings, “Bad Sneakers” from the 1975 album Katy Lied (“Dr. Wu,” the song from which the album’s title was taken, is also fantastic).

I’ve long pondered what “Bad Sneakers” is about, and finally gave up, but I bet some reader will know. Regardless, it contains a wonderful guitar/piano solo by Walter Becker and Michael Omartian, which begins at 1:54 in the video below. In fact, it’s one of the best guitar solos in rock history.

When listening to the solo, I noticed that the guitar and piano were not playing synchronously, and that was part of the solo’s charm. I asked reader Taskin, a musician, if this was indeed the case (I have a tin ear), and she agreed, sending this response:

Bad Sneakers is a GREAT TUNE, love it. If I’m hearing what you are, I’d say, the guitar is a bit behind the piano and drums. Steely Dan was so particular about their recording that I can’t imagine it’s any sort of mistake, and I suspect the guitar is intentionally playing behind the beat. Back beating gives a more laid back sometimes even lazy feel and in this case really makes the guitar line independent from the rest. It sort of floats above the rest of the sound. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking about what I do on the harpsichord too. Because a harpsichord doesn’t have volume control like a piano does, i.e., the ability to play some notes louder than others, we do other things to make melodic lines stand out. One of the main ways of doing it is to misalign the important line from the rest, that way it can be heard. Very cool that you picked up on that, you’d have to listen very carefully to realize what was going on.

I do know from listening to a lot of jazz that both instrumentalists and singers often perform behind the beat. This was, for example, a characteristic of Billie Holiday’s vocals.


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