biology

This scientist paved the way for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine

PHILADELPHIA — When Drew Weissman first started injecting mice with genetic molecules called messenger RNA, it did not go well.Many of the animals became overwhelmed with harmful inflammation, and some died.But Weissman solved that problem with a bit of clever biochemistry 15 years ago, working with then-colleague Katalin Karikó at the University of Pennsylvania. Now their work forms the backbone of two vaccines for COVID-19, including the one for which dramatic early results were announced this week.The vaccine made by Pfizer Inc. and the German firm BioNTech SE, where Karikó now works, appea...

College grads struggle to launch careers in a pandemic economy. 'I chose the worst year to get my life together'

CHICAGO — Kevin Zheng had big plans lined up as he prepared to graduate in the spring with a degree in criminal justice from the University of Illinois at Chicago.The 23-year-old thought he’d enter the job market well-prepared, with an internship at the Chicago Police Department on his resume.But the COVID-19 health crisis upended that plan. His internship was canceled, his graduation was delayed until August, and he sat in his bedroom for the virtual commencement ceremony. Now he’s looking for a job in a pandemic-induced recession.“I chose the worst year to get my life together,” said Zheng, ...

Zoo scientists revive cells from 40-year deep freeze to clone endangered horse

SAN DIEGO — Kurt looks and acts like any other young horse. He scampers and strides on springy legs, testing their strength. When it’s time to recharge, he nuzzles up to his mother for some nourishing milk.But Kurt is no ordinary horse. Kurt is a clone.The 2-month-old colt is a Przewalski’s horse, a species native to central Asia that once went extinct in the wild and is still critically endangered, with only about 2,000 remaining.San Diego Zoo Global researchers have high hopes that Kurt can help turn things around for his species. He was cloned from skin cells taken from a stallion in 1980 a...

Science Has Outgrown the Human Mind and Its Limited Capacities to Process Information

The duty of man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads and … attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency. 

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Science Still Can't Explain This Biological Mystery, But Scientists Like to Pretend Otherwise

Those of us who embrace science are growing increasingly impatient with religious and spiritual traditions. To us, absolute faith in claims scribed by backwards people thousands of years ago is delusional. We think it’s time for the faithful to get over themselves. The culture wars will end when it finally does. We’re waiting, though not patiently, because much is at stake.

Much is indeed at stake, but we’re actually waiting for the scientific to get over themselves. I say this as an atheist fully committed to science as the best method yet for discovering the nature of reality.

Between science and faith, I think faith is the more honest about what the scientific community seems perversely averse to explaining: Organisms: what they are and how they emerge from chemistry. Scientists explain organisms away or simply assume them without explaining them. At least the faithful recognize that life’s purposefulness needs explaining, even though their explanation is no explanation at all.

Notice your response to my claim that scientists haven’t explained organisms. What camp do you find yourself putting me in? The intelligent design community? The pseudo-scientific? I’ve already declared myself an atheist devoted to science. Please hear me out.

How does science not yet explain organisms? We know that organisms evolve. We know vast amounts about the physiochemical processes and mechanisms that account for organismic behavior.

All true and not in dispute. Still, we have no scientific explanation for organisms.

Unlike inanimate things, organisms engage in functional, fitted effort. Effort is purposeful work, an organism trying to achieve what is functional – of value to it, fitted or representative of its circumstances. Effort value and representation only make sense with respect to organisms. Organisms try to benefit themselves given their environment. Inanimate things don’t.

In the physical sciences, there’s simply no room for explanation from functionally fitted behavior. Any physical scientist who claimed that subatomic, atomic, molecular, geological or galactic phenomena as trying to benefit itself given its circumstances would be drummed out of the physical sciences. A physicist knows better than to say the moon tries to lift the tides for the moon or the tide’s benefit.

In contrast, in the life and social sciences, one can’t do without explanations that assume functional fitted behavior. That’s what’s meant by an adaptation, a trait that enables an organism to engage in effort that functions for itself, fitted to its environment.

What then explains the transition from phenomena that can’t be explained in terms of functional fitted effort to behavior that can’t be explained without reference to functional, fitted effort?

A tacit assumption in the sciences is that evolution explains it. It doesn’t.

This assumption takes three forms. The most popular is that evolution starts (here, 10 billion years into the history of the universe) once there are molecules that replicate – special molecules – probably RNA since it's instrumental in life today. Once there are copying RNA molecules, there’s heredity and variation. According to this view, the differences in replicating molecules is the beginning of evolution and therefore the beginning of life.

This doesn’t explain functional fitted effort. There’s no effort. The molecules aren’t trying to copy. They’re passive, like any molecular products of catalysis. They copy when conditions cause them copy. Is there function or fittedness? Is anything useful or functional for the copying molecules fitted to their environment?

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We Are Entering an Enlightened Age That Sees All Animals as Individuals, Each With a Unique Personality

The following excerpt is from Mousy Cats and Sheepish Coyotes: The Science of Animal Perspectives by John A. Shivik (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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The Neuroscience of No Regrets: Why People Still Support Brexit and Trump

It’s now over a year since the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump, plenty of time to witness the consequences of both. And, from an entirely objective perspective, going solely by the ever-increasing evidence, they were terrible decisions. Brexit has gifted Britain a veritable avalanche of governmental chaos, economic damage, international humiliation, internal strife, and much more. The Donald Trump administration has provided essentially the same for the US, although perhaps with slightly less economic injury. But more Nazis.

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We Know Terrifyingly Little About How Our Bodies Respond to Pollutants, but That's Changing

Bad news: unless you live in a bubble, you are full of contaminants. Somewhat more reassuring news: every other living creature on Earth seems to share this condition with you.

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White Nationalists Are Flocking to Genetic Ancestry Tests, and They're Not Liking What They Find

It was a strange moment of triumph against racism: The gun-slinging white supremacist Craig Cobb, dressed up for daytime TV in a dark suit and red tie, hearing that his DNA testing revealed his ancestry to be only "86 percent European, and ... 14 percent Sub-Saharan African." The studio audience whooped and laughed and cheered. And…

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Technosplit: The Bifurcation of Humanity

The chasm between rich and poor in the world has become so extreme it is frequently difficult to grasp. The eight richest men in the world now own as much as the entire bottom half of the world’s population. The wealthy OECD countries, representing less than 20% of the global population, consume 86% of the world’s goods and services, while the poorest 20% consume only 1.3%. These numbers translate into the shameful reality that a billion people go hungry every day and another billion remain chronically malnourished.

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The Biggest Mistake in the History of Science

Science is one of the most remarkable inventions of humankind. It has been a source of inspiration and understanding, lifted the veil of ignorance and superstition, been a catalyst for social change and economic growth, and saved countless lives.

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