Category Archives: Genetics

The flawed brilliance of J.B.S. Haldane

TOWARDS the end of his life, J.B.S. Haldane was inseparable from a pebble that had been found in the Valley of Elah in Israel, where David felled Goliath with a similar projectile. A king-size man who towered over British biology for several decades in the middle of the 20th century, Jack Haldane—the “half-Dane”—was a more obvious Goliath, but he always took the side of the underdog…

Haldane in Spain during the civil war

This story first appeared in The Economist  on 18 July 2020. To continue reading, click here.

 

 

Phylloxera – a pest’s genome reveals its past

A CENTURY and a half ago an alien insect alighted in Europe. It displaced millions, ruined local economies and forced scientists, politicians and ordinary folk into a frenzy of defensive activity. Phylloxera, a member of the group known to entomologists as Hemiptera, or “true” bugs (as opposed to all the other critters known colloquially as bugs), appeared in France in the 1860s and proceeded to eat its way through many of the Old World’s vines…

“The phylloxera, a true, gourmet, finds out the best vineyards and attaches itself to the best wines.” Cartoon from Punch, 6 September 6, 1890

This article first appeared in The Economist online on 4 July 2020, and in the print edition of 11 July 2020. To continue reading, click here (paywall).

 

 

 

Europe’s first farmers

EIGHT thousand years ago small bands of seminomadic hunter-gatherers were the only human beings roaming Europe’s lush, green forests. Archaeological digs in caves and elsewhere have turned up evidence of their Mesolithic technology: flint-tipped tools with which they fished, hunted deer and aurochs (a now extinct species of ox), and gathered wild plants. Many had dark hair and blue eyes, recent genetic studies suggest, and the few skeletons unearthed so far indicate that they were quite tall and muscular. Their languages remain mysterious to this day…

First farmer of the Linear Pottery Culture in Neolithic Central Europe. Illustration: Karol Schauer, State Museum of Prehistory in Halle (Saale), Saxony-Anhalt, Germany.

This article first appeared in the July 2020 issue of Scientific American. To continue reading, click here.

Food, globalisation and pandemics

ONCE a dangerous new pathogen is out, as we are seeing, it can be difficult if not impossible to prevent it going global. One as contagious as SARS-CoV-2 has the potential to infect the whole of humanity. Eighty per cent of cases may be benign, but with such a large pool of susceptible hosts, the numbers who experience severe illness and die can still be shockingly high. So the only sensible answer to the question, how do we stop this from happening again, is: by doing all we can to prevent such pathogens infecting humans in the first place. And that means taking a long, hard look at our relationship with the natural world, and particularly with the animals that sustain us…

This article first appeared in Time on 13 April 2020. To continue reading, click here.

Is factory farming to blame for coronavirus?

WHERE did the virus causing the current pandemic come from? How did it get to a food market in Wuhan, China, from where it is thought to have spilled over into humans? The answers to these questions are gradually being pieced together, and the story they tell makes for uncomfortable reading…

This article first appeared in The Observer on 28 March 2020. To continue reading, click here.