Thursday, May 28, 2009

Vote for your favorite science blog (this one!), a website whose editors “present interesting items from around the web on a daily basis, in the areas of science, design, literature, current affairs, art, and anything else [they] deem inherently fascinating”, has launched its first of four annual best blog prizes. This maiden edition of the award, The 3QD Prize in Science 2009, purports in fact to elect the best entry in a science blog.

Nominations will remain open until June 1st. If you wish to nominate a blog entry, all you have to do is go to the bottom of this page and post a comment containing (in the body of the comment) the URL of your favourite blog entry, with or without some brief accompanying remarks about what motivated your choice.

After the end of the nomination period, everyone will have the opportunity to vote on their favorite.

- June 1st, 2009: The nominating process will end at midnight (NYC time) of this date (so there are very few days left to participate in this phase of the process!). At some point on this day, the public voting will be opened.
- June 8th, 2009: Public voting ends at midnight (NYC time).
- June 21st, 2009: The winners are announced.

Other practical infos, gleaned from the 3QD website:
- Anything written between May 24th 2008 and now is eligible for nomination.
- Between June 8th and June 21st, Stephen Pinker will select the winning entry from six finalists.

And now the most important part: if you like this blog, YOU can nominate one my posts....

Here's the post I personally recommend

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Passage to Brazil

I've always been told, by my mother’s side of the family, that before going to Argentina, her father had emigrated as a child from Russia to Brazil, right at the beginning of the twentieth century, where his own father had “founded” the city of Nova Odessa, in the state of São Paulo. And also that afterwards, due to problems my great-grand-father had had with other immigrants there (the place was then known as the Colonial Nucleus of Nova Odessa), the family had quickly decided to leave Brazil and gone to Argentina, where they finally settled in the village of Basavilbaso, north of Buenos Aires, in the Argentinean province of Entre Rios.

Well, it looks as if that story is actually true, or at least almost true! I just found out, in a book published in 2008 under the title Judeus no Brasil: Estudos e Notas (“Jews of Brazil: Studies and Notes”), by Nachman Falbel, professor at the University of São Paulo, a passage about my great-grand-father himself! I must say I was flabbergasted - and couldn’t help laughing out loud thinking that after all, my family’s oral tradition, which I had never fully beleived (the idea of one of my ancestor being a “founder” of cities in the New World had always seemed a little too much) wasn’t that far from reality.

I don’t know if my great-grand-father was or not “thrown out” of the place by other colons – who, according to the family’s version of events were furious with him because he had promised them idyllic life conditions in Brazil which obviously didn’t come true. But the thing is that the historical account, as told by Nachman Falbel in his book, while clearly more realistic, isn’t that different from the one I was told in my youth.

For one thing, as Nachman Falbel remarks, the first Jewish colons to arrive from Russia to Santos, Brazil, starting in 1905 – and among them seven members of my family – weren’t all farmers: that’s what they had stated as their profession before embarking on the voyage, simply because they wanted to flee their native country and its pogroms.

But they didn’t like being farmers, they knew little about farming – and the hot and damp Brazilian climate didn’t help. Maybe my great-grand-father had actually convinced others to leave Russia with him, telling them they would be able to work at what they knew best – they were typographers, tailors, etc. –, and maybe they really became infuriated, and were preparing to ride him out of town with tar and feathers. I don’t know.

Nachman Falbel describes, in page 218 of his book, the very serious complaint my great-grand-father, Shaia Hassik, presented to the local authorities concerning the fact that his baggage was taking too long to be delivered to him. And the footnote on that same page adds some more salt and pepper to clearly show my great-grand-father’s negative state-of-mind at the time with regard to his new life in Brazil.

Based on information provided by the book about passenger lists of the ships arriving from Southampton, in 1905, I was also able to find online (through, the original embarkation document of the vessel Magdalena – and the exact date of their departure from England: April 21st.

This confirms that my family was in fact part of the very first group of Russian Jewish immigrants to arrive, at the beginning of May, at the Nova Odessa colony, which had officially just been founded by the Brazilian authorities – precisely on that month of April. So, even though my great-grand-father wasn’t “the founder” of Nova Odessa, he was after all one of its true founders…

Image credit: The National Archives, UK

Friday, May 8, 2009


Today, for the first time in more than two weeks, I have some time to spend on this page. These last few days, I’ve dedicated myself full-time to writing and publishing news stories in PÚBLICO about other genes – namely, those the new flu virus.

It’s amazing how such a tiny genome as that, made of just a few genes, can be so hard to dissect and comprehend. But in fact, it’s fairly easy to understand why: the virus changes from one person to another – and to find out, for instance, where it came from, you have to construct its genetic evolution tree taking into account an ever-growing number of infected people. It’s is a different kind of “personal genomics” - but one which becomes extremely important in pre-pandemic circumstances such as those we are experiencing right now.

Let’s go back to my genes. The Spittoon, 23andme’s blog, which I have already mentioned, includes in its SNPWatch section very up-to-date reports on studies involving (reduced or increased) genetic risks links to disease as they are published in the major scientific journals around the world. Here is some of the more momentous “spittle” of the last weeks – which I have of course been comparing to the raw data from my own DNA.

These potential relationships between a given point mutation (or SNP) and a given disease haven’t been confirmed – and for the most part, they only represent slight deviations from the normal risk level for the general population. Nevertheless, they can give you an idea of the feeling you get when it’s not just some anonymous person’s SNPs you’re looking at – but your very own. Some excerpts from SNPWatch:

1 – New England Journal of Medicine (April 15)
Combined analysis of data from Caucasian study participants from the United States and the Netherlands revealed that the A version of [the SNP bearing the code name] rs12425791 is associated with a 1.29 times increased risk of ischemic stroke.

At the end of the article there’s a direct link to the pair of DNA “letters”, or bases (one inherited from my mother and the other from my father) that make up my own rs12425791 SNP. I click on the link, and go directly to my data at that position. They turn out to be: AG.

2– Nature (SNPWatch, April 28)
[The team] found several SNPs associated with autism. All were located in a region of DNA between two genes, CDH9 and CDH10, which encode proteins called cadherins. “These molecules are expressed on the cell surfaces of neurons, and they are involved with shaping both the physical structure of the developing brain and the functional connections among different brain regions. Although a particular gene variant may contribute a small risk for an ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorders] in a particular individual, we estimate that the variants we discovered may contribute to as many as 15 percent of ASD cases in a population,” said [one of the team members] in a statement. The strongest signal came from rs4307059 — compared to two copies of a C, each copy of the more common T version increased the odds of autism by 1.19 times.

My own rs4307059: CT. (For those who are wondering what I might conclude from this: I decided that any “autistic spectrum” personality traits I might have in real life I will only share with my image in the mirror.)

3 – Archives of Ophthalmology (April 14)
The researchers found that one SNP in the TGF-β1 gene in particular was associated with high myopia [-8.00 diopters or worse]. Each A at rs4803455 decreased the odds of developing the condition by 0.67 times.

My own rs4803455: AA (Doubly reduced risk? You don’t say! It seems that I don’t qualify for what they consider “high myopia” in the study, since I don’t quite make it to minus 8 diopters, but I’m pretty close to it. So I don’t give much credence to this result.)

4 – Journal of the American Society of Nephrology (May 1)Researchers studied 260 people who had had bypass surgery and found that those who carried an A at both copies of rs4680 went into shock more often compared to those with other genotypes (69% vs. 57% in AG people and 46.6% in GG people). (...) Prolonged shock, lasting more than 48 hours, was also more frequent in people with two As (25% vs. 13% for AG and 6.8% for GG). (...) people with two As at rs4680 also had greater frequency of acute kidney injury. The median hospital stay after bypass surgery was longer for people with two As at rs4680: nine days vs. eight days for AG and seven days for GG.

My own rs4680: AG (Right in the mid-range; could spell trouble, I suppose.)

(Main image credit: net_efekt/Flickr)