What I'm Reading (Mar. 4)

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Aging is a failure to communicate? Should we have national sea parks? COVID-19 is not an equal opportunity disease. If a virus is not truly "alive," is this the zombie apocalypse?

“Conrad Hal Waddington became recognized as the last Renaissance biologist. This largely had to do with his idea of an “epigenetic landscape”—a metaphor he coined in 1940 to illustrate a theory for how organisms might regulate which of their genes get expressed in response to environmental cues or pressures, leading them down different developmental pathways. It turned out he was onto something: Just a few years after coining the term, it was found that methyl groups—a small molecule made of carbon and hydrogen—could attach to DNA, or to the proteins that house it, and alter gene expression.

…DNA methylation changes throughout a cell’s lifespan.”

Can aging be nothing more than an increasing failure for cells to communicate with one another effectively? From Nautil. Us, Aging Is a Communication Breakdown

“Yet even in the face of our growing global appetite, Western scientists have begun to realize what Pacific Islanders knew all along. To sustain the ocean's life, and our own, we must set aside sanctuaries where fishing is limited or banned. The International Union for Conservation of Nature says that to protect biodiversity, rebuild fisheries, and survive climate change, we need to set aside 30 percent of the ocean by 2030. Our best hope for conserving what’s left of marine life, in other words, is to build a global network of protected areas like those that Pacific Islanders created and managed for centuries.”

I believe it is challenging to argue our National Parks' value, setting aside large areas for our communal good. This article suggests the same be applied to the oceans, the source of all life and a place we will increasingly need to feed the humans of this world. From Natuil. us, The New Taboos

“As the pandemic engulfed the world during the past several months, I kept returning to the question of what might explain these discrepancies. It was an epidemiological whodunnit. Was the “demographic structure” of a population the real factor? Were the disparities exaggerated by undercounting, with shoddy reporting systems hiding the real toll from public-health analysts? Was government response a critical variable? Or were other, less obvious factors at play? Perhaps any analysis would prove premature.”

The eye of noted author Siddhartha Mukherjee is cast upon what factors globally account for the pandemic. Just as our responses to COVID-19 have varied globally, so have the demographics, morbidity, and mortality. He concludes that it is not just one variable, but many, acting in and out of concert with one another. From the New Yorker, from a physician that has made explaining health science a literary art, Why Does the Pandemic Seem to Be Hitting Some Countries Harder Than Others?

“Scientists have been arguing over whether viruses are alive for about a century, ever since the pathogens came to light. Writing last month in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, two microbiologists at University College Cork named Hugh Harris and Colin Hill took stock of the debate. They could see no end to it. “The scientific community will never fully agree on the living nature of viruses,” they declared.

The question is hard to settle, in part because viruses are deeply weird. But it’s also hard because scientists can’t agree on what it means to be alive.”

Carl Zimmer takes on the issue of what scientific criteria we use to consider something alive. As with many other matters, COVID-19 has again raised an unsettled concern. It can’t reproduce by itself, so is it alive; is the pandemic a zombie apocalypse? From the New York Times, The Secret Life of a Coronavirus