Although genes could now have a very important effect on men’s sexuality, the environmental impact is still significant

In the largest study on the matter up to date, scientists from Illinois have investigated the DNA of hundreds homosexual men and have found revolutionising results that show that being gay could have a strong genetic influence.

Although the genome is a vast structure, home to thousands of genes, there were two very specific areas contained in it that were analysed in detail. Both these areas have been known by the scientific community for quite some years. For example, one of them, located in the X chromosome, and called Xq28, was first suspected to be related to homosexuality in a smaller study in 1993; whereas the other one, 8q12 in chromosome 8, was discovered in 2005. The aim of this experiment was to confirm these areas had some effect on sexuality in men and investigate how they caused this effect.

Overall, 818 men, all gay, volunteered for this project. This is almost 20 times more people than in the study in 1993. But to make it reliable as well as statistically accurate, many of the test subjects were brothers; in some cases, even non-identical twins! Having two closely related individuals with similar genetic makeup can make differences in their genome stand out and their distinct effect on the phenotype much easier to find. Using DNA collected over many years from blood samples, the scientific team looked closely at these men’s gene sequence. They were looking for small differences in the coding between brothers, specifically for single nucleotide polymorphisms, which are changes of only one base or nucleotide in a gene. After all the DNA samples were analysed, 5 single changes in the nucleotides were observed, and most occurred in these two regions of the genome.

What makes this study’s results worth considering is the fact that the only feature all these men shared was their sexuality: they were all gay. They varied in every other physical feature; so any change in those areas of their genome that was common to all men had to be related to their sexual orientation.

But both Xq28 and 8q12 are filled with genes, so although we know almost certainly that there are genes in there related to homosexuality, there is still not a distinct list of genes that could cause someone to be gay. Finding them hidden in these large areas full of coding is the team’s next task.

This discovery has, as could be expected, grave implications. It could help resolve all discrimination against gay people, and show that their sexual orientation is not a choice, but actually who they are. But unfortunately, it could lead some people to consider homosexuality as a biological mistake or a negative mutation, and even resort to genetic engineering to identify and remove ‘gay genes’ from embryos. This is wrong on many levels, but the most related to this article is that a person’s sexuality is not only defined by their genes, but is also affected by the environment they live in, so changing their genes is unnecessary and would not prevent homosexual people from being born.

Philae Fall

The misadventures of the famous Philae lander have been the hot scientific topic of the week. 10 years of preparation, hard work and effort finally came to fruition when the robot detached itself from the Rosetta Spacecraft after being together for a decade and set off on its journey to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.


How Philae was supposed to look on the surface of 67P

A couple days before the actual separation, ESA, the European Space Agency, which has been supervising the mission all these years; carried out a series of tests to make sure all the machinery in the lander worked perfectly. There was a minor problem with the thrusters, but since there was nothing scientists at Earth could do to fix it, they decided to keep the mission going anyway.

On the 12th of November of 2014, Philae made history when it became the first object to ever land in a controlled manner on a comet. And although this feat is outstanding and impressive by itself, there were some technical difficulties. The idea was that the lander would fire some harpoons to adhere to the comet and use thrusters so that together, they would push the robot towards the comet. But neither of these devices worked as planned, so when Philae did ‘land’, it bounced back. Twice. The first bounce made Philae jump almost 1km high into space (another record), and took the incredible amount of 2 hours for it to fall back. The second leap was much smaller, and only took a couple of minutes for it to settle down. But this was not the last obstacle in Philae’s way. Due to all the bouncing around, the machine ended up about 1 km away from the original landing site, and on top of that, it has stopped in a rather unusual posture. Instead of having its three legs on the pressed on the ground, one of them is dangling midair.

Facing these problems head-on, scientists still tried to carry out some of the proposed experiments. For example, they wanted Philae to take a sample of the comet dust using a drill incorporated into it. This apparatus comes out of the bottom part of the robot, but since Philae is sloping, the drill couldn’t actually reach the ground.

But Philae actually has more pressing problems at the moment. After bouncing all around 67P, it stopped in an area of the comet where the sun rays can’t reach; a fatal location for a solar powered machine like Philae. This soon alerted scientists regarding the duration of the battery, which would quickly run out. The solution was to turn on a ‘power-saving’ mode, but right in the middle of this process they lost contact with the robot. As of the 15th, Philae has used up all its stored energy and has basically shut down. There is still hope that when 67P reaches areas closer to the Sun, the lander will become powered again, but chances are slim.

Regardless of the many problems with the landing and its consequences, Philae did end up on a moving comet, and that’s reason enough to congratulate scientists at ESA for so many years of dedication and a successful mission.

The Potato Controversy

Genetically Modified food has been controversial for many years now, and has a long history of arguments between food manufacturing companies and people against ‘unnatural’ food. The new chapter in this story involves none other than a potato.

Simplot, a company known for its normal and genetically modified potatoes, has created a new product which they call ‘the Innate Potato’, because of how natural it is compared to other GM crops.

To make this potato novel and unique in the GM market, Simplot has created it using RNA interference technology. This method uses RNA strands from other potatoes with different characteristics and mashes them together, to create a sort of Frankenstein Monster potato. The result is much more appealing than the name suggests. By combining many positive qualities from different potatoes, you end up with a potato with numerous benefits. This particular potato, for example, has proven resistant to bruises, and produces fewer carcinogens when fried. Usually, when normal potatoes are fried, the amino acid asparagine can react to form acrylamide, a suspected carcinogen. When tested, Innate Potato produced up to 75% less acrylamide when heated.


Someday in the future, it is possible that McDonalds fries are made from genetically modified potatoes

Not only that, but since it only uses genes from natural potatoes, and doesn’t use genetic material from other species like bacteria, it is immune to many of the usual complaints of GM-haters, which dislike the idea of mixing genes between two opposite species.

In spite of the strong opposition, the Innate Potato has already been approved by the USDA, (the Unites States Department of Agriculture), so it could potentially be sold to customers anytime now. In fact, rumour has it that McDonalds, one of Simplot’s biggest customers, might use the potato in the near future to make their well-known McFries. This, of course, has caused a heated debate where some opposers of these potatoes are pressuring the fast food company to reject them. McDonalds’ decision concerning this matter is still unknown.

However, Simplot only plans to grow a limited number of these super potatoes for now, so regardless of McDonalds’ decision we’ll probably have to wait quite some time to taste them.

Until then, McFries are still delicious.

Plant Sun Cream

We’ve all spent a little too much time on the beach and gotten sunburn: when our skin gets red and aches. But have you ever wondered how plants, which spend their whole life sunbathing, never get burnt? Scientists in Indiana asked themselves this same question and here’s what they found out.

For a plant to survive, it needs to carry out photosynthesis, which uses ultraviolet light as energy to drive the whole process to completion. But UV radiation is also what harms us and causes sun burns. There is an obvious problem here, because how can plants absorb UV for photosynthesis but also block it to remain healthy? This is a bit of a trick question, as there are many different types of ultraviolet radiation depending on the frequency, each one with its own properties. The one we’re interested in today is UV-B since it is the one that commonly causes sunburns.

plant sunlight

Light can be dangerous, so plants have developed a mechanism to both utilise light but protect themselves from it too

It’s been known for a while that a group of molecules, called sinapate esters, are found on a top layer of plant epidermis, and their abilities include absorbing light energy for photosynthesis and blocking the harmful frequencies. Now, these seem like the answer to the question I posed before, right? Yes, but until now, scientists, although they knew their effects, didn’t know precisely how they worked.

Here’s when the team at Indiana, lead by Timothy Zwier, come into the picture. They decided to investigate sinapoyl malate, a certain sinapate ester that can do most of the radiation absorbing by itself. To find out what frequencies this chemical absorbed, they went through a very interesting process. It starts by cooling a sample to close to O degrees Kelvin, or absolute zero. This causes it to become gas molecules, which can be kept functional if they are surrounded by argon gas atoms. Then, a UV-B laser is shot at them and the frequencies absorbed and transmitted are ready to be measured.

The results were absolutely fascinating. This small little molecule, when covering a leaf or any plant structure, can absorb the whole of the UV-B spectrum of light, effectively blocking all common harmful light. By doing this, the interior of the plant is left unharmed and protected form the adverse effects of radiation, including mutations in the fragile DNA sequence.

It is a truly effective method, since plants are exposed to sunlight all day long and are never burnt, so some possible applications of this substance include the production of suntan lotion for us humans lacking godly molecules on our skin, or creating even more UV-protected plants in case of increased UV radiation, like that caused by the disappearing ozone layer.


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