As those following my social media pages would be well aware, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to be selected as a SciComm (science communication) Champion for the World Science Festival Brisbane. So I’m here learning about the most fascinating science and sharing it with all of you.
I’ll be here all weekend and sharing each day’s excitement as it comes. If you’re interested, you can follow along moment by moment on my Twitter or Facebook, or just stick around for these daily updates!
Anyway, today was my first day down at the festival. I got caught in traffic trying to get down to South Bank, but managed to still make it in time to pick up my festival pack with tickets and t-shirt with time to spare before my first event.
This was my first event of the evening. Antarctica has long fascinated me (and it’s certainly a long-term goal to get there sometime!) and climate change is the thing I’ve been asked about most through my science communication. So I was quite excited to be attending an event with an expert panel planning to talk about just that: Antarctica and its climate.
And did you know that if all the ice in Antarctica melted, this whole festival would be 10 metres underwater?
That was the event’s opening, setting the scene to discuss why Antarctica is so important and relevant to us. And that sea level rise would have massive impacts. Most obviously, coastal cities are threatened by any significant sea level rise, but the sea level rise is linked to rising sea temperatures as well. As the sea temperatures increase, we have far more extreme weather events, particularly in terms of super-powerful cyclones.
The panel continued to discuss how that would affect things we take more or less for granted, like insurance. If ‘natural disaster’ weather events become normal, insurance companies couldn’t afford to insure against them for the most part and we’d be suddenly living in quite a different world. Food for thought anyway.
The ice levels in Antarctica are also vital for the conservation and survival of species that live there. It is estimated that there are 595,000 emperor penguins and 8 million Adélie penguins living in Antarctica currently, but they live on the sea ice, rather than the continent itself and are being forced to change areas and habits as the sea ice sheets are shrinking.
And the impact on global climate? Antarctica, along with the North Pole, can be considered the “world’s air-conditioners”, because they lose more heat to space than they gain from the sun, meaning that they cool the planet. That generates major global air and sea currents, meaning that cold Antarctic sea and air travels throughout the world and affects many other species and areas and warming in Antarctic areas has a very widespread effect.
In fact, with all the importance of ice, some scientists study only ice. They drill cores of ice and study them chronologically like tree rings. Some cores have trapped air, which can indicate what the atmosphere was like in history. They can even tell some climate history, and have been able to link some Australian droughts with different bits of Antarctic ice!
Some other interesting takeaways: the science bases on Antarctica are primarily using solar power as their green energy source (yes, in a continent where it’s completely dark in winter and as the windiest continent, it’s actually too windy to use turbines). Also, 1% of Antarctica is ice-free and has some mosses and grasses and two species of flies that can’t actually fly. Unfortunately, this 1% area is still enough to be threatened by other species and visitors to Antarctica must go through biosecurity checking, generally involving checking pockets for accidentally picked up grass seeds. And last of all, Antarctica receives nearly 50,000 tourists per year, which is small on a global scale, but is a steadily growing number.
This event was straight after the first and was a very interesting discussion about privacy in DNA profiling for genealogy and genetic predisposition to diseases. While the panel didn’t give many recommendations aside from saying that lawmakers should proceed with caution, it was certainly interesting to see how the role of DNA testing in forensics has evolved and current issues with acquiring the individual’s consent for testing.
Firstly, in forensics traditionally, DNA testing involved taking DNA from the crime scene and checking to see if it matched the DNA of a suspect. Works well to confirm that you have the right person. But about 10 years ago, that began to change.
Forensic investigators realised that the criminal’s DNA could be used far more effectively. Genealogy could be traced, or certain physical features identified. This was the case in how the Golden State Killer was finally discovered: FBI investigators uploaded his DNA sample to an open ancestry database and matched him with a third cousin who had had an ancestry test. They then tracked back an entire family tree and identified a huge list of possible suspects and narrowed them down by using traditional evidence (location, age, sex, etc…). They settled on this final suspect and covertly obtained DNA and found a perfect match. Case solved!
The same technique has been used since in other cases as well. Currently, they can also often identify skin colouration from DNA and obtain vague information about other physical features. Researchers are increasingly working towards building more complete pictures of people from their DNA, however this is made extremely difficult by the fact that hundreds or thousands of different genes interact to produce a single characteristic, such as height.
It’s fascinating, but the case of the Golden State Killer does bring up significant ethical questions. After all, DNA that some unknown third cousin submitted to a company (think of a cheek swab or saliva that you could easily send to 23andMe or similar online companies) was tested and then used in an entirely different matter. The individual would have been asked to give consent for testing and use as de-identified DNA sample (useful perhaps for researchers surveying genetic populations); however, the fine print might have included the fact that this DNA was allowed to be later re-identified if necessary.
People who submit DNA samples to these companies are not asked for additional permissions when investigators try to match DNA to find a suspect, so that’s certainly something to think about!
Another thing that really struck me was the point the panel made about needing to correctly identify the DNA. It might sound obvious, but many genetics companies that you can access online are quite amateur. If, in the case of the Golden State Killer, the distant third cousin’s DNA had actually been contaminated with another person’s, unrelated and innocent people could be mistakenly associated with the case, creating havoc in their lives and own social standing. So investigators must be very careful in identifying people to avoid such mishaps.
The second major point of discussion relating to people’s consent for testing was related to widespread testing. If the government had a complete profile of their nation’s genetics, they could identify criminals very easily, they could also improve healthcare systems to specifically help those with genetic predispositions to diseases, or inflicted with terrible genetic diseases.
This was highlighted in the discussion about different countries that have engaged in widespread genetic testing. China is an example, having begun a programme of free, voluntary genetic testing in one of its states. However, there is significant peer and governmental pressure to comply, invalidating the supposed consent. China has not stated what they are doing with their collected data, but it is likely that they are using it for policing and as a trial with the potential for even further investigation.
Iceland has had a very high proportion of the entire population genetically tested by a commercial company that partnered with the government. This data was highly useful for research purposes because the geographical isolation of the country results in a high level of genetic similarity in some genes, allowing researchers to far more effectively isolate single genes and their effects. Participants were allowed to receive their data if they wanted to, but it was all stored, and even swapped hands when the company was sold, all without consultation of the Icelandic peoples.
The Congo and Uganda have also engaged in genetic testing to improve healthcare, but with stricter data regulations, as is common with medical genetic testing. They also received ethics approval from other nations and advisory boards before engaging in testing.
It’s clear that it’s a convoluted issue … it can have great benefits, but it’s important to be mindful of the privacy issues surrounding DNA profiling.
“We’re going to scare you stupid tonight.”
Very encouraging words to open an event on the challenges facing modern medicine. I didn’t think it was too bad until we got started on bioterrorism, a research group that accidentally created a smallpox virus that is vaccine-resistant, and the fact that we can use CRISPR tools to biosynthesise viruses as dangerous as the imagination can dream up. Oh, and it’s not unlikely that some of the major epidemics we’ve seen in recent years could have been the result of bioterrorism!
But it was quite definitely the best event of the evening.
There was so much good conversation from how to deal with epidemics, and why they’re so damaging today in the face of decreasing immunity and greater travel and connection, all about animal reservoirs for disease, and how they make it so difficult to actually eradicate diseases. In fact, there was so much good stuff that I really can’t do it justice here, so I’ll follow this up with a far more comprehensive summary after the festival!
I hope you enjoyed this (shortish) summary of my Friday events and stick round for Saturday and Sunday!