Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees

-Revelation 7:3


"Issues facing mankind"
review of some fundamental points emphasizing some relevant examples
like "Biology and the citizen," current affairs, the stuff that any informed person should be conversant with


Here is the dodo, the poster child of extinction.
But there were probably many extinctions before westerners came to islands.
Here is a SLIDE I took at the Smithsonian natural history museum of Martha, the last passenger pigeon who died 1 pm Sept 1, 1914 at the Cincinnatti Zoo. Passenger pigeons became extinct from hunting and then further losses even though their migrations darkened the skies hundreds of times per day according to Audubon.
SLIDE Panda eating bamboo
many species are going extinct, but publicity and public awareness emphasizes "charismatic mega-vertebrates" like the Panda.
Loss of habitats (for instance forests) is a real big problem, and bamboo forests big enough to support pandas in a populated country like China with > 1 billion people are hard to save.
SLIDE Condor, in 1986, they were reduced to 6 in the wild and 21 in captivity, they had been poisoned by farmers who thought they were predators (they are scavengers) - importance of zoos and captivity for recovery, but there is the question of when to release.
SLIDE (These are shocking!!!) Elephants in Serengetti killed for ivory by poachers
SLIDE Black rhinoceros killed for horn
We are now in a period of mass extinctionsass extinctions!!!
(but Permean extinction ==> loss of habitat, Pangaea)
(Cretacious-Tertiary==> climate change)



Even as recently as 25 years ago, much of what is going on today in molecular biology might have been considered to be science fiction. The progress is awesome. Several genomes have been sequenced, and the progress is fast and furious in the human genome. Relative to a lecture series of lectures on "issues," I will limit my discussion to one point. The March 24 2000 issue of Science reports the sequence of Drosophila melanogaster. A consortium of universities headed by G. Rubin at U. Cal. Berkeley had been working for years when a corporation, Celera, came up with a faster technique (shotgun) to complete the work. Although Celera cooperated with universities and scientists, there is a danger that important genetic information might become patented, and this worry is intensified as Celera will contribute to, and possibly spearhead, the human project.


Antibiotics like penicillin were major break throughs, but antibiotic resistance has developed in humans.
1928 Alexander Fleming found mold killed bacteria
later, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain developed
1945 Nobel Prize
When antibiotics are added to animal feeds, resistance developed (as for humans), so now meat and eggs have become dangerous.
Vaccines gave us strong optimism: Small pox, (1st "vaccine" [encowment]) Jenner, 1796, nearly eliminated worldwide and now the debate is whether to get rid of remaining virus stocks, the only source of the disease but also the only source of future vaccine manufacture.
Polio, Salk & Sabin, vaccines of the1950's, also nearly eliminate polio.
These successes were unique, however, viruses with no alternate hosts and which do not evolve quickly.
We have dealt poorly with rapidly " evolving " viruses with alternate hosts like flu (influenza) which has birds as an alternative host.
In US in the 1950's, hepatitis B (serum hep) was spread in giving immunizations with unclean needles by the health departments.
World Health Organization (WHO) innoculated so many people, could they have spread disease?
What a surprise to the optimists to get a new viral "Pandemic" (AIDS).
Since it was not until 1970 that retroviruses with their reverse transcriptase were discovered, we wouldn't have even understood what was going on before that and we would have been helpless.
Even with understanding, progress has been very slow.
Also, we have not come to grips with "slow" viruses ("incubation" [latent period with no symptoms but where the individual can spread infection] can be 10-20 years).
Retrovirus mechanism is so insidious (jumping into genome) -- they may have found a fatal flaw
in life as we know it.
Also, since reproduction is so fundamental, the mode of disease spread is a "clever" evolutionary strategy.
In central Africa, AIDS is a real bad problem compared with industrialized nations.
In 1992, an article in Rolling Stone suggested that a contaminated polio vaccine spread HIV in Africa in the 1950's; later (1999), Edward Hooper expanded on this theory in a book, The River.

Emerging diseases:

And in central Africa, diseases like ebola are also found (read Richard Preston's 1994 best seller "The Hot Zone" about this deadly disease and the possibility that it spread in a primate facility in Bethesda, MD. This is a disease like in Edgar Allan Poe's "The masque of the red death.")

Summer 1999 - West Nile virus hit New York, killing 7 people, also birds, an encepalaitis caused by a flavivirus like a St. Louis encephalitis (and originally mistaken as that) - took a long time to find out, New York does not have surveillance by sentinel chickens (it took bird deaths at Bronx Zoo to involve veterinerary experts, crucial to solve) spread by mosquitos, problems from bird migrations

Gene therapy

Jesse Gelsinger, age 18, died in Sept, 1999, of immune reaction to adenovirus engineered to treat his ornithine transcarbamylase deficiency (a genetic liver disease that leads to ammonia accumulation).
As a result, several clinical trials were halted.
Study was done at University of Pennsylvania, and there were many lapses of good protocol.
However, adenovirus is one of the main hopes for inserting correct genes into mutant tissues which are optimal for potential treatment.
(T. Beardsly Gene therapy setback, (Medicine, Business and technology) Scientific American Feb. 2000 pp. 36-37)


GMO stands for "genetically modified organisms." In this country, environmental groups such as Greenpeace, have spearheaded the opposition to GMO. At the economic level, the US, a major agricultural exporter and with big biotech firms, opposes trade sanctions and labeling requirements. At the level of the world trade organization, (WTO), especially the European union (EU), there is consumer anxiety, witnessed by terms such as "Frankenfoods." Clearly, there can be wonderful achievements, such as the recent expression of beta-carotene in rice; in many third world areas, rice is so preponderant in the diet that people suffer from vitamin A deficiency. But there are dangers such as the possibility that sterility alleles will transfer from patented crop to other plants.

Here is a picture of a monarch butterfly larva, happily eating milkweed. The monarch has become the poster-child for environmental concern over corn genetically engineered to express the natural insecticide from Bacillus thruingiensis to control European corn borers. Will the pests develop resistance, as they have to every other insecticide ever used?

Reference: a recent "News Focus" series in Science "GM crops in the cross hairs" (vol. 286, pp. 1662-1668, 1999, various authors)

Here is a feature in a recent issue of the River Front Times criticizing Peter Raven, head of the Missouri Botanical Garden, for affilitiations with corporations involved in biotechnology

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this page was last updated 12/3/02