Ed Yong, a journalist who other scientists usually regard highly, just published a story “A New Discovery Upends What We Know About Viruses”, describing a paper published in eLife, that claims to show that “infection can operate at a level above the individual cell level, defining a viral multicellular way of life.”

The authors of the paper, the eLife Digest (it’s version of a lay summary), and Ed Yong all claim that this is a revolution in our understanding of viral infections, and even evolution. This is not true.

Now, there are articles like this published all the time in…


According to science, GM crops are safe. Due to the intense debate about these crops and regulatory measures in North America and Europe, there have now been over 500 scientific studies looking for — and failing to find — conclusive risk to human health from GM crops.

People and livestock have been eating GM crops for nearly 30 years without a single documented case of harm to either one of them. Due to the intense debate about these crops and regulatory measures in North America and Europe, there have now been over 500 scientific studies looking for — and failing to find — conclusive risk to human health from GM crops. This isn’t surprising: GMO crops are designed with human safety in mind.

For instance, if someone were trying to create a new GM plant by introducing a gene to produce an insect-killing toxin, they’d first comb…


No, they don’t. The key message when thinking about GMO safety is that the nutritional properties of a plant depend on what genes a plant has, not how they got there. And the properties of individual genes are often not related to the species from which they originally hail. That is to say that a gene from a peanut moved into corn will not make that corn more “peanut-y.”

So far, all commercially available GMO crops, anywhere in the world, have been found to be “substantially equivalent” to their non-GM counterparts. This means that GM plants are just as safe — or un-safe — as non-GM plants of the same species and variety.

Substantial equivalence means that, a GM plant is considered as safe as a non-GM version if it meets the following qualifications:

  1. It has a few genes added compared to its non-GM counterpart (about 10 of around 30,000)
  2. It has very similar resulting chemistry
  3. It doesn’t produce any toxic or allergenic compounds

A large part of testing…


Many GM plants use different herbicides than conventional crops. Most cultivated GM plants are designed to be used with an herbicide called glyphosate, which is considered one of the safest available herbicides (for humans). Glyphosate is also used on non-GM plants. There is evidence that accumulation of any herbicide in the environment (like waterways) can be harmful but the evidence that glyphosate is more harmful than other herbicides is not clear.

Herbicides are chemicals used by farmers to prevent the growth of weeds which compete with crop plants for sunlight, water, and soil nutrients. They’re an important part of modern agriculture, and by allowing non-mechanical methods of weed-control, like tilling (ploughing) or hand-weeding (as is still practiced in much of the developing world), they allow farmers to limit soil erosion as well as save on labor and energy. There are many different herbicides available to farmers today, and their use is dependent on things like which crop is planted, what weeds are prevalent, and the type of cropping system.

Most cultivated…


Why were we caught unawares, and why we need a long-term project to edit the human germline

Dr. He Jiankui, the scientist in China, who revealed this week that he’s created two genome-edited human babies. (The National Academies)

The first CRISPRed babies have been born in China, and from all the noise of the past few days my takeaway is that this inevitable development has caught us all shamefully unprepared.

The story began Sunday evening with an article in the MIT Tech Review describing experiments by a scientist in China, Dr. He Jiankui, to make HIV-resistant human embryos by editing the CCR5 gene. Subsequently, rumours spread on Twitter that the embryos had actually been taken to term, confirmed by an AP story stating that a pair of twins (Lulu and Nana) had been born from the CCR5-editing experiment…


So this post is mainly a response to this excellent piece by Dr. Arjun Raj. This isn’t exactly a rebuttal (despite what the title says), but just some thoughts I wanted to develop on, especially since the original post has been rattling around in my head for a while now. Plus, my current research project is something I consider systems biology, but is almost purely ‘empirical’ (I prefer experimental), and so at least somewhat in contrast to the vision of systems biology described by Raj.

First a couple of caveats. One, I’m barely a systems biologist. Yes, I have 1/2…


How and why we should get rid of author lists in scientific publications

About a month ago, Steven Burgess, conducted a Twitter poll asking if biologists would consider making the lists of authors that accompanies every scientific publication, alphabetical. Unsurprisingly, I and 670 other scientists voted against this proposal.

i. the problem

In the biological sciences, authorship of scientific, peer-reviewed articles is perhaps the single biggest determinant of career success, recognition and grant funding. However, merely being one author out of, say 5, on an article is not enough, where you are on that list matters too.

A very slightly exaggerated version of how scientists read author lists.

Closer to the front and you’re probably someone who did most of the lab work. If you’re first on…


It’s been three days now since the current US administration issued its new, far-reaching immigration controls. Among the first hit were multinational companies, Silicon Valley and scientific institutions, all of which rely on an international, multi-cultural workforce. As scientists, we know that academic life means a lot of travel, and usually moving from country to country, wherever research funding and projects lead us. Almost instantaneously, reports flooded in about scientists who’d been stranded, detained and otherwise troubled by the new executive order. …


How science can deal with the post-truth world.

The legitimisation of falsehood is the defining phenomenon of the ‘post-truth’ world we live in today, and this was perhaps most visible in the Brexit and Trump campaigns of last year. For scientists, this new post-truth world stands as a stark repudiation of everything we value: truth, rationality, logic, evidence; but some of us have been used to this for a while now. For decades, scientists, and particularly biologists, have been directly challenged by ‘post-truthers’ in several areas: evolution, homeopathy, anthropogenic climate-change, genetic engineering of plants, and vaccines among others. It is also a curious truth that every such group…


A conversation with George Church

In my first article, I talked about the recent GP-Write proposal and highlighted what I thought were key questions that needed answering. I was pleasantly surprised, a couple of days later, to receive an email from George Church providing some counter-arguments and answers. I’ve reproduced below (with permission) some points (divided by topic) from our email exchange.

On benefits.

i. benefits for everyone?

from the original article: “Would GP-Write lead to synthesis companies focusing on low costs-per-base for high-volumes, while ignoring demand for low-volumes?”

GC: This is like asking: Did NGS ignore demand for low volumes of sequencing (typically 200 bp)? The answer is “yes”, but…

Devang Mehta

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