Can You See Us Now? – Naked People on Bikes (NSFW)

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Arriving in the park, it’s impossible to deny: that sure is a lot of cock.

I know, I know, it should technically be ‘a lot of cocks‘. But damn – the overwhelming impression from so many raw bodies is of an amount.

I soon realise there are quite a few women too. In fact, there are all sorts of bodies: slender, wobbly, pale, muscular, hairy, tattooed, tanned, sagging.

I’m on the scene at the Melbourne 2015 World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR), surrounded by about 200 bikes and people in various stages of undress.

While Germans have been into “active nudity” since the early 1900s, the global naked cycling movement is relatively young, dating back to 2004 when events were organised concurrently in ten countries. Since then, the movement has grown to encompass over 70 cities across 20 countries and 6 continents.

So why naked cycling? And more importantly, isn’t it damn uncomfortable?

The comfortableness or lack thereof, I’m about to experience first hand. As for the reason, the WNBR website lists three core objectives:

  • To celebrate cycling and the human body
  • To demonstrate the vulnerability of cyclists on the road
  • To protest against oil dependency

So the people standing idly around me, with their pasty nether regions shining in the sun, are basically a pack of pro-sustainability cyclists, as well as a few hippies. A smattering of nudists have also snuck into the mix – people more or less supportive of the cause, but mostly just looking for an excuse to get naked in public.

It feels bizarre undressing in front of all these strangers. I came for the full experience though, so off everything comes.

I’m crouched down painting swirls on my arm when a French guy wanders over and introduces himself, his shaved penis dangling precariously close to my face. His name is Nicholas and he also came alone. It becomes clear that this isn’t his first rodeo. He’s telling me all about a bunch of nudist festivals he attends when he recognises Richard, a friend from his all-male naked hiking group. Richard, painted in rainbow stripes, waves hi.

The thing the strikes me is just how funny the human body actually is, especially with a little paint. A redheaded woman has her boobs painted to look like daisies. An older man has ringed his tackle with multi-coloured halos. Nipples everywhere are adorned with love hearts and stars and paw prints. A Peruvian guy has drawn eyes on his hairy butt cheeks to watch you while you ride behind him. It’s… different. Backs have become billboards for all sorts of slogans:

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Less gas, more ass baby.

A rotund naked man in a fluro vest and hardhat pulls out a bullhorn and calls the group to attention. It’s finally time to hit the streets.

We mount up and roll out. I can’t speak for people with lady parts, but what I discover is that it’s surprisingly comfortable! As WNBR explains in their FAQ:

Surprisingly, for both women and men, riding naked isn’t especially less comfortable than riding clothed. When riding with clothes on you’re often rubbing against the seams, so in some ways naked riding is comfier!

We come to a busy intersection and drivers go wild, honking and cheering. One of the cyclists has rigged a speaker to the back of their bike, and ’90s music breaks forth. People dance in their seats. The lights change and we continue past an elderly couple on a walk. They grin with scandalised delight, and the woman covers the man’s eyes.

We experience a quirk of modern human psychology: as we come upon unsuspecting pedestrians, time after time, their immediate response (after a moment’s gleeful shock) is to pull out their phone and start filming. We must have been filmed by hundreds, thousands of people throughout the day.

Word of our coming spreads rapidly over the airwaves, and pre-informed spectators start appearing en masse to watch and grin and film. At the Carlton gardens, they spill onto the street in swarms, waving and chittering and filming. Richard the nudist calls out to them repeatedly, “Get naked! Join us! Being naked is awesome!” I feel distinctly uneasy.

We turn onto Sydney Road, one of Melbourne’s most notorious sites for bike accidents. Alberto Paulon was recently killed here when a motorist opened their door without looking, knocking him into the path of an oncoming truck. This is the exact kind of accident that the WNBR hopes to eliminate.

We fall quiet and stop to bow our heads as we reach his memorial – a white bicycle surrounded by flowers and handwritten messages of grievance and solidarity. Compassionate words are spoken by one of the organisers, and we leave shortly after with a strange mingling of emotions.

Alberto Paulon’s memorial on Sydney Rd

World Naked Bike Ride is an annual event that happens all over the world – probably in your own city. It attracts people of all ages, nationalities and body shapes. I found it to be an overwhelmingly positive event: a day of spreading smiles, spicing up the days of innocent strangers, and showcasing the true diversity of the human form.

If the cause resonates, but you’re a bit shy about your jiggly bits, remember you don’t have to get naked. The tagline is “As Bare as You Dare”, and there were plenty of people who only dared shorts or underwear. It’s also a good idea to bring a friend for moral support. Despite how welcoming and respectful everyone was, it can be draining to spend hours naked amongst strangers.

And even if the cause doesn’t move you, still consider checking out the ride route on the day. After all, how often do you get to see a flock of naked humans?

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Chocolate, Cannabis and Chemistry of the Brain

About two decades ago, a team of scientists at the San Diego Neuroscience Institute found themselves in the enviable situation of having spare grant money lying around. During a particularly dull lab meeting, one of the scientists – who was fantasising about chocolate instead of paying attention* – drifted into a wacky line of thought:

Why was chocolate so damn addictive? Could it possibly be because it contains psychoactive compounds? Compounds like maybe… tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in cannabis?

 

The daydreamer put the question to the group, and after a brief debate the scientists all agreed that they had to find out. They grabbed the grant money and popped down the street to buy some chocolate.

They ground it up to analyse its chemical structure†, and what they learned was quite amazing: the chocolate contained tiny amounts of anandamide. Anandamide is a compound produced naturally by your brain, and it has a very similar structure as THC in cannabis. In fact, it has the same effect on your brain. Anandamide is your brain’s way of getting itself high, if just a tiny little bit.

 

They published their findings in Nature. In typically sciencey language:

“Cannabinoid drugs [such as anandamide and THC] are known to heighten sensitivity and produce euphoria. A possible side effect of elevated brain anandamide levels could be to intensify the sensory properties of chocolate thought to be essential to craving.”

In other words, eating chocolate might give you a little case of the munchies.

 

A note on the munchies, courtesy of Urban Dictionary:

“Contrary to popular belief, when you have the munchies you are generally NOT HUNGRY. It’s more like… eating feels really really good. Imagine everything tasting like the best-tasting thing you ever ate in your life.”

Does that sound suspiciously like chocolate to you?

Notably, the researchers found no anandamide in white chocolate. And in a way, this isn’t surprising. Has anyone ever craved white chocolate? No, of course not.

While the discovery was intriguing, it wasn’t clear whether chocolate contains enough anandamide to affect people’s brains in any meaningful way. A group of scientists based in Naples, Italy came in to tackle the question. Their plan: they were going to get a bunch of mice high.

I approve of this plan.

 

They reasoned that they could feed the mice different amounts of anandamide, and find the smallest dose needed to noticeably change their behaviour. They would then compare this dose to how much anandamide was in chocolate. If chocolate contained at least as much, it was probably affecting the brain. Being Italians, as a control treatment they used… olive oil. Seriously. Olive oil.

While some of the mice probably quite enjoyed the experiment, the result came out negative – there was nowhere near enough anandamide in chocolate to affect their behaviour. They published the findings in Nature:

“Our results show that the amounts of anandamide… are several orders of magnitude below those required, if administered by mouth, to reach the blood and cause observable ‘central’ effects.”

The Californian scientists wrote back a snarky response, criticising the Italians’ methodology and pointing out that of course chocolate didn’t get you high. Any psychoactive effects it might have would be subtle and subjective.

At its peak, this chocolate-cannabinoid question burst into the courtroom. A man had been accused of smoking and dealing marijuana after showing positive in a urine test. His lawyer had heard about the recent research, and decided to try it out as a defence. He argued that his client had eaten a huge amount of chocolate just prior to taking the urine test, and it was actually the anandamide from the chocolate that had made him fail. The judge, uncertain how to proceed, called in the scientists.

They synthesised pure anandamide, mixed it with urine, and then checked whether the concoction could trigger a positive result on a standard test. It couldn’t, and the man was convicted.

And this is where the story might have ended. Following the case, everyone seemed to lose interest in the chocolate-cannabinoid question. No further research was done, and the idea was forgotten.

Until, that is, a new group of Italian scientists entered the scene in the late ‘00s. By this time it was known that both THC and anandamide work by turning on a brain protein called CB1. CB1 then triggers a bunch of changes in your brain that create all the fun effects of cannabinoids. CB1 is also somehow involved in people’s motivation to eat “highly palatable” foods – anything sugary, fatty and delicious. In your brain it looks a bit like this:

Anandamide-THC-neuron

 

The Italian scientists had a colony of rats that they were raising on a diet of water and standard rat chow. It was healthy and filling, but not especially palatable.

To see what would happen, the scientists started offering the rats a highly palatable chocolate drink. It turns out that rats are just like humans and love chocolate – they started sipping it all the time. Now the rats were hooked on the chocolate, the scientists gave some of them a drug that turned off CB1 in their brains. This meant that cannabinoids like THC and anandamide wouldn’t affect them any more.

What happened? The rats without functioning CB1 lost interest in the chocolate drink. They still ate whenever they were hungry and maintained their weight, but they no longer seemed to care what they ate. Bland rat chow was just as good as chocolate. They had lost their ability to appreciate deliciousness.

 

*               *               *

 

To this day it’s still unknown whether there’s enough anandamide in chocolate to turn on CB1 in our brains at all. It’s clear though that this pathway is critical to our enjoyment of food. Without cannabinoids such as anandamide or THC turning on CB1 in our brains, we wouldn’t crave that delicious cheesy pizza or that caramel swirl ice cream. In line with this, drugs that block CB1 are currently being investigated as a possible tool for weight loss.

If, on the other hand, you’re someone who likes to supplement their brain with the occasional bit of THC, next time you’re enjoying that delicious junk food, you’ll know which protein to thank.

 

marley choc

 

Sources:
  • Brain cannabinoids in chocolate; Di Tomaso, E; Beltramo, M; Piomelli, D; Nature August 22, 1996, Vol. 382 Issue 6593, p677
  • Trick or treat from food endocannabinoids? Di Marzo, V; Sepe, N; Petrocellis, L; Berger, A; Crozier, G; Fride, E; Mechoulam, R; Nature, UK; Vol. 396 (6712), 1998, 636.
  • Cannabinoid mimics in chocolate utilized as an argument in court; Tytgat, J; Van Boven, M; Daenens, P; International Journal of Legal Medicine; 20000509, Vol. 113 Issue: 3 p137-139, 3p, 2000
  • Suppression by the cannabinoid CB1 receptor antagonist, rimonabant, of the reinforcing and motivational properties of a chocolate-flavoured beverage in rats; Maccioni, P; Pes, D; Carai, MA; Gessa, GL; Colombo G; BEHAVIOURAL PHARMACOLOGY; MAY, 2008, 19 3, p197-p209, 13p.

*This sentence is a complete fantasy with no basis in fact

†The chocolate also contained two related compounds which act to stabilise anandamide and prolong its effects. These other compounds were synthesised and included along with anandamide in the legal case.

GMOs Pt 4: Is the Apocalypse Nigh?

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Disclaimer: Trading Atoms has no interests, financial or otherwise, in any biotechnology or related company.

Genetically modified (GM) crops are playing an increasingly significant role in global agriculture, and quite literally changing the face of our planet. Unfortunately, science has a rich history of inadvertently messing things up, which raises a question: should we be concerned about GM crops too? There are five major worries that people commonly hold regarding the technology:

  1. GM food is dangerous for human health
  2. GM crops lead to increased pesticide use
  3. Farmers are exploited by biotech companies
  4. Genes from GM plants might spread into the wild
  5. Triffids?!

If you’ve already read up on What Genetic Modification Is and What the Heck is Out There, you have all the background needed for us to turn up our coat collars, dive boldly in and see where the evidence leads on these questions.

 

Chemicals and critters

We’ve mentioned previously that of the millions of hectares of different GM crops out there, just two types of modification account for almost all of them: herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. It’s worth understanding these in a bit more detail before addressing the five major worries.

Herbicide tolerance is a modification that allows plants to survive a synthetic chemical called glyphosateGlyphosate was created by Monsanto in the 1970s and brought to market as “Roundup”. After their patent expired in 2000, glyphosate use expanded greatly, soon becoming the most widely used herbicide in the world. It has been described as a “one in a 100-year discovery that is as important for reliable global food production as penicillin is for battling diseases.” This weighty claim is worth taking seriously.

Glyphosate interferes with a protein called EPSPS which is critical for growth. This protein is only found in plants and bacteria, meaning glyphosate has minimal toxicity toward humans and other animals. It is also cheap, has a relatively short half-life in the environment, and has replaced the use of several more toxic and persistent herbicides.

“Roundup Ready” plants, developed by Monsanto, contain a modified copy of the EPSPS gene which lets them grow even in the presence of glyphosate. This means that farmers can spray glyphosate on their Roundup Ready crop, and only weeds and competing plants will be killed. This represents a vast simplification of pest management strategies.

Fun fact: the modified EPSPS gene was isolated from a bacterium found growing in a glyphosate manufacturing waste stream.

 

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Micrograph of a colony of bacillus thuringiensis

The other major crop modification, insect tolerance, is achieved by giving plants a gene to make “Bt”. Bt is a naturally occurring protein that gets its name from its creator: Bacillus thuringiensis, a common soil bacterium. A simple overview of the Bt system is provided by the European Commission.

When Bt is ingested by an insect, it is activated by the alkaline environment of the insect’s stomach and becomes toxic. It interferes with the insect’s digestive tract, eventually causing the insect to starve to death. Because humans and other vertebrates have acidic stomachs, any Bt ingested remains in its non-active form, and is therefore not toxic. A review from the European Food Safety Authority (see p. 8) reached this same conclusion of Bt non-toxicity in mammals. Furthermore, Bt is only harmful to insects that ingest it, meaning that beneficial insects like honeybees, which don’t eat crop plants, are left unscathed.

Bt has been used as an insecticide since the ’60s, when it was approved in Germany as a spray. Because Bt is a naturally-occurring product, it is also commonly used on organic farms as a spray – there’s a good chance your organic kale was grown with the help of Bt. Genetically modified Bt crops let farmers skip the spraying step, instead making the protein automatically inside their cells, where it will only harm any insects which eat the plant.

Now we’ve covered the two main GM technologies, let’s tackle the five major worries!

 

1. Is GM food dangerous for human health?

It turns out that this question has the clearest answer of all: GM food is in no way dangerous to human health. Follow this link for more information and references about the safety of GM food than you could possibly care to read. In short though:

“There are nearly 2000 peer-reviewed reports in the scientific literature which document the general safety and nutritional wholesomeness of GM foods and feeds.”

 

A selection of the many scientific and medical organisations that have publicly supported this assessment:

14-12-01 The science of genetically modified food

For a GM crop to be certified as safe for human consumption by organisations like the FDA, it must display “nutritional equivalence” to its non-GM counterpart. Remember, the fundamental change in a GM plant is that it has a few extra genes sprinkled amongst tens of thousands of genes, making one extra protein amongst tens of thousands. This means that nutritional equivalence is not surprising.

The main risk of introduced proteins is that they could cause an allergic reaction. Accordingly, allergenicity testing is a strict requirement for any proposed GM crop. This testing is effective, and to date, “no biotech proteins in foods have been documented to cause allergic reactions.” Interestingly, GM technology can actually be used to go the other way, remove existing allergens from food.

If you have any lingering doubts about the health safety of GM food, hopefully this 29-year study of over 100 billion GM-fed animals will satisfy them.

 

2 & 3. Do GM crops lead to increased pesticide use, and are farmers exploited by biotech companies?

We’ve seen that Roundup Ready crops can survive copious spraying of glyphosate. Could this encourage farmers to apply the chemical recklessly? If so this is a worry, as the more glyphosate that is used, the more pressure there is on weeds to develop resistance, necessitating the use of ever greater quantities of glyphosate. As for exploitation of farmers, claims along the following lines are well-known: “Roundup Ready crops do not increase the yield or profits of farmers, [and so] only serve to benefit Monsanto.”

To address these two issues, we turn to the latest and most comprehensive peer-reviewed meta-analysis of the economic impacts of GM crops, published in 2014 in the journal PLOS ONE.

The authors screened over 20,000 agronomic studies, narrowing down to a set of 147 which met stringent criteria for inclusion. They analysed a range of factors, including yield, pesticide use and farmer profits. Here are their results when comparing GM crops to conventional ones. *** indicates high statistical significance (at the 0.01 level):

journal.pone.0111629.g002

So they found that, on average, GM crops increase yield by 21.6%, decrease pesticide used by 36.9%, and increase farmer profits by a whopping 68.2%. There is no significant effect on total production cost. As the authors explain, although GM seeds are more expensive than conventional ones, this cost is offset by savings in pesticide use and manual pest control.

These results may come as a surprise; however, the story changes when we separate out herbicide tolerant (Roundup Ready) and insect resistant (Bt) crops. Analysed on their own, Roundup Ready crops only increase yield by about 9% (compared to 25% for Bt crops), and while both types of modification increase farmer profit by around 68% on average, this figure is extremely variable for Roundup Ready crops. It seems that they are sometimes great for profits (150% increases or more), but other times they actually hurt profits badly (-24% or worse). Also notably, the decrease seen on the graph in pesticide use is due entirely to Bt crops (which use 42% less than conventional crops). Roundup Ready crops seem to need just as much pesticide as conventional crops.

The take-home message is that not all GMOs are created equally. Overall, genetic modification has been a great boon to farmer profits and played a role in decreasing pesticide use, but it will be necessary to evaluate each new modification on its own merits.

 

4. Can genes from GM plants spread into the wild?

Is it possible that GM crops could escape into the environment and run rampant much like an introduced species, or perhaps breed with weeds/wild relatives to create a so-called “superweed“?

First, the scary news: breeding of crop plants with wild ones occurs constantly. Rapeseed can mate with turnip rape, genes from cultivated maize can cross to wild maize, and sugar beet can form hybrids with garden beet. This process happens for both GM crops and crops bred over time for selected traits.

Furthermore, it turns out that glyphosate-resistant weeds have already emerged, with half of all U.S. farms now struggling to control these pests. While this is a serious issue for food security and highlights the danger of relying on a single pest-control mechanism, the resistance is not due to GM genes escaping. Rather, it has evolved independently in the weeds. Such evolution is ubiquitous and inevitable, and the same process underlies multidrug-resistant bacteria, insects overcoming every insecticide ever made (including Bt), and why effective cancer drugs are extremely difficult to develop.

Short of some game-changing technological breakthrough, humans will always be locked into these evolutionary battles against pests and diseases.

Regardless, do we need to be concerned about the spread of GM genes? It depends on the modification, but the answer will often be “not really.” To understand why, let’s consider a critical Darwinian question:

“Will the extra protein(s) give the GM plant an advantage over wild ones?”

It costs a plant resources to make proteins, so if those proteins don’t do something to give the plant a leg up over its competitors, the plant won’t spread. Glyphosate doesn’t exist in nature, so building glyphosate-resistance proteins is just dead weight.

On the other hand, there are modifications, such as faster growth or insect resistance, that could conceivably give a GM plant an advantage over competitors – Bt is a good candidate. In these cases, management strategies such as seed sterility, buffer zones, and altered flowering timing are critical for ecological safety.

There are no known instances of GM plants spreading genes into the environment – although interbreeding with non-GM crops is another issue (maybe for a future article) maybe for a future article. At this point the risk seems manageable Once again though, genetic modifications will have to be scrutinised on a case-by-case basis.

 

5. Triffids?!

 

Biological traits like mobility and intelligence are super complicated to even understand, let alone engineer. We’re probably safe on this front for a long while yet.

 

Do we actually need GM crops?

We’ve seen that, thankfully, a lot of the criticisms and worries around GM crops don’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s clear that, overall, GM crops have increased yield and farmer profits, decreased pesticide use, and are safe for human consumption. Nonetheless, it may be worth considering whether we really need GM crops. There will always be unknown risks involved in tampering with complex systems such as global agriculture, and these unknowns may exceed the known benefits.

One of the strongest arguments in favour of GM food rests on the projected global population for the coming century, which is set to increase significantly. Agriculture already covers about a third of the world’s landmass, and short of further deforestation, there simply isn’t more space to devote to it. This means that if we are to feed a growing population, yield per hectare will have to increase. It will be difficult to achieve these increases without (and possibly even with) turning to GM technology – especially in the face of climate change.

Another argument is one of humanitarianism and international development. Contrary to common perception, 90% of GM crop farmers live in developing countries, largely China and India, and till small resource-poor farms. We have seen that GM crops typically lead to increased yields and profits for farmers. Anecdotally (see link above), this extra income often goes to financing things like improved access to health care and education.

Maybe the apocalypse isn’t quite so nigh as we may have feared.

Want to learn more? Two reputable and well-researched websites are the Genetic Literacy Project, and the European Union’s GMOcompass.

GMOs Pt 3: What the Heck is Out There?

Disclaimer: Trading Atoms has no interests, financial or otherwise, in any biotechnology or related company.

Welcome to the third part of this mini-series on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), where we’ll take a more detailed look at what the heck is out there in the environment. If you’ve just tuned in, you might like to first read up on what exactly genetic modification is, and maybe how to make your very own GMO.

Let’s start with some context by taking a starry-eyed look back over 10 of the most significant developments in GMO technology that have led up to today.

A Montage of Genetic Modification

1953: Watson, Crick and Franklin discover the structure of DNA.

1973: Boyer and Cohen create the world’s first ever GMO when they modify the bacteria E. coli to express an antibiotic-resistance gene. In the process they unintentionally foreshadow a serious problem soon to hit the world: the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in hospitals.

1974: Jaenisch and Mintz create the first GM animal. They injected a primate virus into mouse embryos, then transplanted the embryos into surrogate mothers. The mice grew up normally except that they contained the viral DNA.

1978: Genentech, the world’s first genetic engineering company is founded, and engineers E. coli that can produce human insulin. Diabetics and livestock everywhere rejoice.

1980: The U.S. Supreme Court rules 5 to 4 in General Electric’s favour that “A live, human-made micro-organism is patentable subject matter”. In so doing, it sets the entire course of GMO history to come. GE immediately patents a bacteria engineered to eat crude oil.

1983: The first modified plant is created, again by adding an antibiotic resistance gene. Can you guess the species? (Hint: it was the ’80s). Yep, of course it was tobacco.

1987: The first field release of a GMO takes place – a “Frostban” bacteria designed to protect crops from frost. Activists attack and attempt to sabotage the trial site the night before. It’s said that history repeats.

1994: Calgene produces the first commercial genetically modified (GM) crop plant, the Flavr Savr tomato. This tomato doesn’t produce a natural protein that degrades cell walls, meaning it stays ripe for longer. The Flavr Savr experiences a tumultuous commercial life of initial success, then by a decline at the hands of consumer distrust, and finally discontinuation by 1997.

1995: The commercial GMO market explodes, with the development of potato, cotton and maize strains that can resist insects.

In the ensuing two decades, two particular classes of modification have come to dominate the GM plant market: insect resistance (via insertion of the “Bt” toxin gene), and resistance to the herbicide “glyphosate” (marketed as Roundup). Glyphosate resistance now dominates the GM market to such a degree that it is present in a whopping ~90% of all transgenic crops, making it the Big Cheese of commercial GMOs. We’ll talk about this as well as Bt in the next instalment.

How many GMOs are out there?

To date, all GMOs approved for human consumption have been plants. A common source of confusion regarding this claim is recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which is injected into dairy cattle to increase milk production. rBGH is produced by genetically modified bacteria, in much the same way as human insulin. Injecting rBGH into cattle doesn’t cause them to become genetically modified. It is however a form of doping, one which is demonstrably harmful for their health and wellbeing. Human growth hormone has been abused by athletes since the ’80s.

So, why haven’t GM animals been commercialised (except for certain novelty uses)? There are a few possible reasons. Plant products make up the bulk of the average person’s diet, and consequently plants account for the majority of the value of the agricultural sector. Aside from this economic incentive, plants are arguably easier to modify and cultivate than animals.

Nonetheless, there’s also a clear legislative bias at play against commercialising GM animals. This may reflect an unproven notion that there’s less risk of GM plants escaping and spreading. A more reasonable argument might be that because plants lack sentience, there’s no risk of them suffering because of a modification. The main reason for the bias may not be so rational though.

Since animals are our closest evolutionary ancestors, we typically hold them in a more reverential and even “sacred” light than plants. You can probably imagine a mutant two-trunked pine tree without being too bothered, but a two-headed rat feels a lot more uncanny valley.

Whatever the reason, at this point in history, crop plants are the undisputed stars of GM technology, so we’ll refocus our radar in the direction of agriculture.

 Delicious Data About Agriculture

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Agriculture covers a full third of the Earth’s land area, and as of 2013, GM crops made up about 3.5% of the total. That corresponds to more than 1.7 million square kilometers, or an area greater than the entire landmass of Iran. Given this, it’s probably fair to say the prevalence of GMOs is not insignificant.

Legal regulations and social attitudes towards GMOs vary widely between countries, which means that these crops aren’t just scattered around the globe randomly. A particularly rich source of information on GM crops is the report Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2012, commissioned by the pro-GM group ISAAA (The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications). Despite their partisanship on the issue the data seem solid, and the report is worth a read if you’re interested in details about a particular country’s GMO activities.

Which nations are the biggest adopters of GMOs? There were only 28 countries growing GM crops as of 2012, though these countries are home to 60% of the world’s population. Uptake is overwhelmingly focused in North and South America. Interestingly, and largely owing to Europe having the strictest GMO regulations in the world, there are only eight industrialised countries growing GM crops, meaning the rest are developing nations.

Most GM-growing nations are currently focusing on cotton, maize and soybean. GM food crops are predominately used as livestock feed rather than for human consumption, and as mentioned earlier, most GM crops are herbicide resistant and/or insect resistant. This is changing though, with an increasing proportion of “second generation” strains entering the market, which have these traits stacked with others, such as enhanced nutrition or drought tolerance. The USA and China are cultivating GM versions of several other food crops, including things like papaya, sugarbeet and sweet pepper.

While the USA has the greatest land area devoted to GM crops of any nation, as well as the highest number of GM species, GM land is mostly devoted to just a few staple crops, for which an extremely high proportion grown are GM varieties. For the “big three” of cotton, maize and soybean, over 90% of farms are now growing GM varieties. In Canada, a record high of 97.5% of canola crops are GM.

The increasing uptake of GM crops is an interesting story. Despite the USA easily dominating the pack in this modern day space race, the vast majority of remaining GM crops – and 90% of GM farmers – are located in the developing world. Developing nations are also taking up GM technology at a greater rate. As you can see in the chart below, industrialised nations have already lost the majority share of the market.

How do we explain the huge differences in GMO legislation and uptake rates between countries, particularly Europe and the USA? It’s worth first reminding ourselves that, by many metrics, the USA is just a weird outlier, so this may be a very difficult question to answer.

Nonetheless, one possible explanation is labelling requirements (though the causality is hard to tease apart). In the late ’90s, a strong opposition movement to GMOs grew in Europe, and it succeeded in mandating strict labelling of any GM products. Supermarkets responded with a wave of panic, banning products containing any GM ingredients out of fear of losing customers. In a very short time, the entire European GM industry was dead. Conversely, see North America on the graph below (click for larger version). It has no labelling requirements.

Without labelling of GM products, there is less consumer concern and less avoidance of them, meaning the economic incentive for farmers is to grow GM crops rather than less efficient conventional ones. Is this a bad situation for the USA? This debate is currently raging in several US states, with recent or upcoming votes on GMO labelling. All we will say here is that when public concern is coupled with scientific misunderstanding, the outcome can be quite harmful.

Unravelling Some Sticky Side-Issues

Neil deGrasse Tyson was recently lambasted for defending GM technology by claiming it is not all that different from the domestic selection that humans have been exerting on plants and animals for thousands of years. As he pointed out when he later clarified his statement, there is a big sticky mess of related issues tangled up with GMOs, and it was these that his attackers mostly took issue, not the science itself. It’s worth dissecting out a couple of these confounding topics before closing the book on current GMO status.

The sticky mess includes things like: corporate exploitation of small farmers, monocultures, and the merits of “organic” farming (a term that every organic chemist will tell you is meaningless as they sigh into their erlenmeyer flask).

1. Corporate exploitation and patenting. Tales are rampant of farmers in developing countries being forced into unfair annual contracts for GM seeds, or of organic farmers losing their organic licence then being sued because their crops have been contaminated by a GM strain. Such situations rightly invoke our moral outrage. However, according to the excellently researched and independent Genetic Literacy Project, these stories simply aren’t true. Some are myths while others have the facts twisted. Even if these tales were true though, lawsuits and rigid contracts are issues of equitable IP legislation, not of science. The same problem applies to the pharmaceutical industry, with potentially life-saving medications being fiercely protected by patents and kept artificially expensive.

2. Monocultures. A common claim is that GM crops are always “monocultures”, meaning genetically identical plants are grown en masse. The risk here is that if a virus or pest evolves which one plant is susceptible to, all would be susceptible, leading to rapid losses of huge numbers of plants. As it turns out though, when a GM plant is developed, the trait is typically bred across into many cultivars in order to increase the genetic diversity and minimise this risk. That said, growing only one type of crop in an area does harm soil quality and biodiversity and so should be avoided where possible. Most GM crops, excepting pesticide resistant ones, can be grown in mixed plots with no barriers.

3. Organic food. The main point to stress here is that GM crops are not the opposite of “organic” crops. While organic farming excludes the use of GMOs on ideological grounds, it is primarily an alternative to conventional large-scale agriculture. You could grow a patch of GM alfalfa using entirely organic farming practices if you wanted to. Despite this, GMOs and organics are often pitted against each other in the context of food production and security.

Whatever merits organic farming may have, superior food production is sadly not one of them. A 2012 meta-analysis published in that most weighty of scientific journals, Nature, found that organic farming typically produces 34% lower yields when compared to conventionally farmed crops in comparable conditions. This entertaining and well-researched video explores the pros and cons around organic food and dispels some common myths.

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You should now be clued up on exactly what genetic modification means, where GMOs come from, their history, and what the heck is out there at the moment. This means it’s time to face the upcoming last part in the series: GMOs Pt 4: Is the Apocalypse Nigh?

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GMOs Pt 2: How to Make Your Very Own!

Disclaimer: Trading Atoms has no interests, financial or otherwise, in any biotechnology or related company.

In Part 1 of this series we delved into the realm of genetics and looked at just what constitutes a genetically modified organism (GMO). We said the essential difference is that a GMO usually produces one or more extra proteins that don’t exist in the original species. These extra proteins were added to create some kind of desired trait, such as pesticide resistance in wheat. In the coming instalments we’ll look at the prevalence of GMOs and whether we should be terrified, but before all that dry reality, it’s time to make our very own!

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The fabled Umbuku lizard.

 

Step 1: Pick your species and desired trait

Back in the idealistic days of my childhood, I had a vision for what my life’s work would be: I would be the one to engineer the world’s very first actual Pokemon! It would probably look something like this.

However, as the years rolled by I gradually came to accept the harsh truth: I would never achieve my dream. The problem was that Pokemon tended to violate the laws of physics. And that was before even considering the technical limitations to genetic engineering. So with this lesson of genetic hubris in mind, what kinds of creatures could we build?

Until quite recently, the limited tools at our disposal for manipulating DNA meant that the best we could aim for was the addition or subtraction of maybe a few genes.

This is no longer the case. With the creation of the first self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell, and the development of new, extremely versatile genetic tools, DNA can be snipped and chopped and changed in pretty much any way we want. Luckily this hasn’t yet lead to an influx of dystopian creations – say, a weaponised psychedelic wasp, or my personal favourite in GM scaremongering:

But if the sky’s the limit when it comes to DNA manipulation, why haven’t we seen this kind of stuff? Let’s assume that scientists are bound by absolutely no ethical qualms or regulatory oversights, and would be keenly interested in adding a digestive tract and muscular system to the common carrot.

The reason, it turns out, is that the way embryos develop is really, really complicated. To make something as complex as a limb, thousands of different genes have to be turned on and off in precisely the right moments in the right cellular locations and at the right levels. Embryonic development is a splendidly complex genetic symphony. Just look how confusing and boring the development of a fruit fly is!

 

 

And that’s a highly simplified explanation, only looking at the very first cell. As you can imagine, the process gets exponentially more complex as different types of cells and tissues begin developing and talking to one another. It quickly reaches the point where a detailed understanding is nearly impossible. The complete story though, if we do ever one day manage to unravel it, looks to be quite beautiful:

So, now that our wildest dreams have been crushed for the foreseeable future, what are we left with?

Well we can still do a lot of pretty interesting things, provided it only involves fiddling with simple and well-understood systems. Generally speaking, this means we’re still limited to changing one or a few genes at a time. While no one is going to be adding wings to lions any time soon, some noteworthy innovations have still been made.

  • One of the earliest breakthroughs, taking place as early as 1978 and providing a major boon for type 1 diabetics, was the insertion of the human insulin gene into E. coli. Before this time, insulin could only be harvested from the pancreatic glands of slaughtered pigs and cattle – not a cheap or pleasant process for anybody. These days, E. coli bacteria happily grow away in vats churning out the stuff.
  • With climate change increasingly impacting upon the yield and yearly predictability of agricultural harvests, drought-resistant wheat may soon prove an important tool in the fight for food security, not to mention farmers’ livelihoods. The wheat is being developed right now.
  • The first genetically modified animal proposed for human consumption is the AquAdvantage salmon. It possesses an extra growth hormone gene that came from a related species of salmon. This extra growth hormone causes it to reach full size in about half the time of a conventional salmon.

 

While all these developments are clearly useful and quite interesting, none of them are very visually exciting. So, without any further delay, let’s see if we can make a cat that glows in the dark. If all goes to plan, here’s what our GlowKitty might look like:

 

 

 

Step 2: Figure out how to obtain your trait

Fiddling with an entire biochemical pathway is Hard, but luckily for us, the modification needed to make a GlowKitty is actually quite simple – we only have to add a single gene. This gene will make a protein called Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), which looks a bit like a microscopic barrel. The barrel works by absorbing high-energy blue light and re-releasing it as green light. As long as the gene is turned on in enough of the kitty’s cells, we should get a good healthy glow. Note: the gene that makes GFP is also named GFP. This can be a little confusing, but it’s standard practice in the world of genetics.

But where do we get this handy gene from? GFP originally comes from a handsome bioluminescent jellyfish which lives off the coast of North-Western America. Its name is Aequorea victoria, the Crystal Jelly.

As an aside, GFP has probably been played with more than any other gene in history. If you hadn’t heard of it before, you can find it cited in thousands upon thousands of papers. The extremely handy thing about GFP is that you can stick it onto another protein that you’re interested in. Usually, trying to look at a protein in a cell is like trying to spot a black plane in the night sky. Adding GFP is like installing a navigation light.

So, back to the project at hand. We’ve picked our species (cat), decided what trait we want to give it (glow in the dark), and we know we can get the trait by adding a single jellyfish gene (GFP). Time to move on to…

 

 

Step 3: Clone the gene

When Hollywood does genetics, it likes to delve into the spicy issue of cloning things. Things like dinosaurspeople, maybe alien-people (Caution: there may be a spoiler or two in there for anyone living under a particularly stable rock).

There’s also a smaller-scale, less sexy type of cloning you can do: simply copying a piece of DNA. It still counts as cloning! You’re replicating a biological sample aren’t you? It turns out that this kind of cloning is way easier than creating a whole living creature. In fact, it’s an extremely common and straightforward lab procedure, and cloning GFP will be our next step in making GlowKitty.

The process used is called Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). If you’re not familiar with PCR, it’s a bit too detailed to explain properly here. Basically though, it involves mixing DNA with enzymes and repeatedly heating and cooling the mixture to help the enzymes copy the DNA. This video provides a pretty good insight into what goes down in the lab whenever somebody does PCR:

 

 

PCR is an amazingly versatile technique. As the song scientific video explains, it’s central to a whole bunch of DNA-related techniques, from paternity testing to detecting mutations and forensic investigations.

Now we’ve covered the theory, you should get out your PCR machine, turn it on and have it idling at about 90-100ºC. If you don’t have a PCR machine, you can substitute in an oven, a bowl of ice and a pair of tongs. Then just follow these easy steps:

  1. Prepare some DNA containing the jellyfish GFP gene.
  2. Add a dash of DNA-copying enzymes (known as “polymerases”). These can be harvested from bacteria, or really any living creature. Make sure to use only trusted species, as cheaper options can result in mutations. Pyrococcus furiosus makes a product that you can count on for peace of mind.
  3. Season with loose DNA bases, salts and primers.
  4. Cook for about two hours, cycling between hot and cool.

Et voila! If all has gone to plan, you should now have several billion copies of your GFP gene.

 

Step 4: Put the gene into your species

We hit an immediately problem here: we can’t just inject the GFP gene into an adult cat. If we did so it would only end up in a few cells, and we want our cat to be glowing all over. We’d also like it to one day be able to have GlowKitties of its own, so we need the gene to be in its sex cells too.

The only option we have is to get the GFP gene into a single-celled embryo. This way, the GFP will join the rest of the cat’s DNA, and when the embryo grows and divides, the GFP gene will get copied into every cell too. So, go out and get your hands on some cat embryos.

There are a range of approaches we could try in order to get our gene in there. Injecting it into embryos with a tiny needle is pretty tedious and finicky, but it does seem to work quite well for a lot of species. We could also try chemicals. There are compounds that punch holes in the outer “skin” of cells, allowing our gene to slip in. The problem is that, unsurprisingly, this tends to seriously weaken the embryos. There are other types of chemicals that wrap DNA up in a ball of fat, allowing it to slip right through the embryo’s skin like a ghost through walls. Unfortunately, these chemicals also tend to be a bit toxic.

Or, there is this:

Yes, that is literally a gene gun. Or if you like, “biolistic particle delivery system”. It fires tiny balls of some kind of heavy metal, often tungsten or gold, which are coated with DNA, right into cells. It works pretty well for plants and animal tissues, where there are a bunch cells together to take the impact. However, as you can imagine, blasting a defenceless little cat embryo with balls of tungsten is like cannonballing a ship. Not good.

As with most things, evolution itself has devised a more elegant solution than anything us humans have been able to come up with. Viruses and certain bacteria have spent billions of years mastering the art of slipping inside living cells. Luckily for us, it’s not too hard to harness these clever critters to do our bidding. We simply have to take out their genetic material and replace it with the GFP gene, and we’ve made the perfect little Trojan horse.

Whichever technique you end up choosing, hopefully you’re successful and get the gene in there.

 

Step 5: The agonising screening process

After all this rigmarole, we might still only be halfway to having our GlowKitty! It’s time to carry out a bunch of screens and checks, not to mention then raising our embryo to an adult cat.

Most life forms have state-of-the-art defence systems to stop new genes from sneaking into their DNA – after all, that’s the kind of nefarious thing that a virus might try to pull. These defences can also make it quite hard for us to get DNA to stay in an embryo. Depending on what technique was used, we might have to screen hundreds or even thousands of embryos to find one that has taken up the gene. This process can be pretty exhausting, especially in something as complex as a cat. Sooner or later though, we should have our glorious eureka moment.

The GFP gene will have picked a spot somewhere along the cat’s DNA to bury in and join the family. Again depending on what technique was used, the spot was probably picked completely randomly. If we’re lucky, it will have picked a boring patch of DNA that wasn’t doing anything. If we’re unlucky though, it might have dived right into one of the cat’s genes and messed it up. There’s also the chance that two or three copies of GFP have jumped in, all at different spots. We definitely need to investigate this, and we do so by reading the DNA code on either side of the GFP gene.

We can compare these DNA sequences to the cat genome to see where the GFP has buried in. If there are no cat genes in these areas, we can be happy that the GFP hasn’t screwed up anything and push ahead. Otherwise, it’s back to the screening process to find a different glowing embryo.

As the cat develops, we’ll have to monitor that the gene is making enough GFP – but not too much – that it’s making it in the right tissues, and that nothing else unexpected has gone wrong. With a bit of luck though, the cat will grow to term happy and healthy and glowing green.

If you’ve made it up to here: Congratulations. You have obtained your GlowKitty.

 

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scienceinseconds.com

The Twist

If you had your finger on the pulse back in 2011, you may know that GlowKitty already exists!

The story is that U.S. researchers wanted to study the cat version of HIV (called “Feline Immunodeficiency Virus”, FIV). They did this by adding a resistance gene again FIV, and joined it to GFP to act as a beacon. They followed the same process that we have, choosing a virus to get the genes into cat embryos. These cats can now glow in the dark, and won’t get AIDS as easily.

If you’re the type to be upset by this kind of manipulation of animals, I’ve got some bad news for you: GlowKitty is by no means a unique development. For what it’s worth though, glowing in the dark is not thought to cause any pain or emotional distress, and GlowKitties can lead essentially normal lives, probably oblivious to their sciencey superpowers.

*               *              *

Stay tuned for GMOs Pt 3: What the Heck is Out There? We’ll be investigating the prevalence and types of modified creatures that have most come to populate the planet.

GMOs Pt 1: Just What is Genetic Modification?

Disclaimer: Trading Atoms has no interests, financial or otherwise, in any biotechnology or related company.

The development of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is clearly one of the more controversial issues of our time, with a wellspring of strongly held opinions issuing forth, particularly from the political left. With such widespread distrust and uncertainty amongst concerned citizens, the topic is well and truly ripe for some informed discussion. Riper than a GM Flavr Savr tomato, some might even suggest.

In this first instalment on GMOs, we’ll be going through the basics of just what genetic modification means. Stay tuned for Part 2 where we’ll walk you through a simple guide on how to make your very own GMO, then in Part 3 we’ll address the more sobering question of whether the technology is even safe, and possibly have you regretting that spider-shark you’ve unleashed upon the world.

A Quick Review of Genetics

As you would surely have heard at some time, all living creatures have DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) in them. If you’d like to get a bit spiritual-sciencey (as we sometimes do), you can legitimately think of DNA as the mystical life force that vibrates through and connects all living creatures on the planet. It is the real-world midichlorians. This particular molecule is present in every single life form, from the elegantly simple bacteria, to the towering trees, to the most majestic of animals.

Capture

Pretty much everything you need to remember about DNA is contained in the following three sentences. DNA is an incredibly long spiral ladder, with four types of rung. These rungs are organised into genes. Each gene is a blueprint to make a certain protein.

When the word ‘protein’ gets mentioned, most people think of that new diet they’re trying, or how sigh, they really should be making better use of that gym membership. While it’s true that muscles are largely made up of two particular types of proteins, there are many, many more types. It’s actually best to think of proteins as tiny machines that swim around in your cells, controlling every single thing you ever do. They are like the little cogs whirring away driving the immense living robot that is your body.

So to recap:

DNA –> is organised into –> Genes –> are blueprints for –> Proteins –> are tiny machines that control everything you do

A protein-machine grabbing onto pink DNA

A protein-machine grabbing onto pink DNA

How Many Genes are There?

Humans are intricately complex beings, with a huge array of different cell types and processes going on. Before the Human Genome Project, scientists speculated about how many different types of genes and proteins we must have to sustain all this complexity. Guesses ranged from over 6 million genes back in the ’60s, down to 100,000 genes by the National Institute of Health in 1990, to a post-genome estimate of 22,000. Recent evidence suggests the number is probably actually around 19,000 to 20,000.

Whatever the exact figure, it’s still very large, especially considering that those sweet guns you’ve been working on are mostly made up of just two proteins. Out of the thousands of others, only a small handful are well understood, and many remain outright mysterious.

How many Genes are there in Other Branches of Life?
kerrydarlington.co.uk

kerrydarlington.co.uk

Bearing in mind that it’s very hard to say exactly how many genes any species has, geneticists have found some interesting results:

Humans – 20,000

Dog/cat – 19,000/20,000

Mouse – 25,000

E. coli4,200

T. vaginalis60,000

HIV – 9    (Note: RNA not DNA)

Brewing yeast – 6,000

Fruit fly – 14,000

Frog – 20,000-21,000

Rice – 46,000-55,000

Wheat – 94,000-96,000

So if you thought that humans were a superior species genetically, think again. While we do have very impressive brains, our gene sets are not so different from a whole bunch of everyday animals. If you’ve ever been unlucky enough to suffer a bout of vaginitis, you may have Trichomonas vaginalis to thank – a single-celled parasite with three times as many genes as you.

Plants in particular can have staggeringly large gene sets. This is often the result of accidental DNA duplications that occur during evolution, which are then chosen by selective breeding (more on that below).

This discussion of gene sets is actually quite facetious, because what has become clear over time is that the number of genes doesn’t really matter. Merely witness the devastation that HIV is able to wreak with its measly nine genes. The important thing to remember is that most species have thousands of genes, and we generally have very little idea what they do.

What Is Genetic Modification?

Time to get serious. Here’s the legal definition:

“Any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology.”

This is basically saying that an organism is considered to be a GMO if it has had its DNA changed by scientists. There are a few possible kinds of changes:

  • inserting a gene from another species
  • editing (mutating) an existing gene
  • deleting an existing gene
  • changing how much protein a particular gene makes (regulatory changes)

Overwhelmingly, the GMOs created to date have had one or a few genes added to them from other species to create new functionality. A few examples of this include:

Contrary to the raft of hysterical images circulating online about GM food in particular, GMOs are NOT injected with mysterious chemicals, they do not gain explosive or radioactive properties, and they do not spontaneously develop circulatory systems.

Rather:

GMOs have a tiny difference in the proteins they make

To illustrate this point, let’s say that scientists make a drought-resistant strain of wheat by adding two genes.

The gene sets of the two strains would look like this:

  • Original wheat: 95,000 genes, making 95,000 proteins
  • GM wheat: 95,002 genes, making 95,002 proteins

Your body doesn’t know what any of the original 95,000 proteins are, and we’re not specially adapted to be able to deal with them. Rather, imagine a conveyor belt manned by thousands of eager unsupervised 5-year olds, with intricate Lego creations travelling along it. It’s going to be an orgy of joyful destruction.

Our digestive systems are much like this. Whatever shape or function a protein has, this becomes irrelevant once it enters the stomach. Gastric juices and enzymes will tear apart everything. The two extra wheat proteins will be broken down just like all the others.

It is possible that, while still in the wheat, the drought resistance proteins could make a chemical that is relevant to human health, such as bacteria that produce insulin. For this reason not all GMOs are equal, and the functions of introduced proteins have to be well understood. In most cases though, the only difference between GMOs and “wild” strains will be one or two extra proteins. We’ll explore health risks of GMOs further in Part 3.

What isn’t Genetic Modification?

An organism can be considered GM if even a single rung in its DNA ladder is changed – even if that rung does absolutely nothing. Let’s return to our legal definition:

“Any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology.”

The important clause is “through the use of modern biotechnology.” What this means is that the DNA has to be altered in a specific fashion for it to count as genetic modification. Otherwise – bizarrely – any changes are considered natural.

There are several ways that DNA can be altered without the use of modern biotechnology. As we shall see, these “non-GM” methods generally result in far more significant and unpredictable changes.

carrotmuseum.co.uk

carrotmuseum.co.uk

The oldest way that humans have been modifying DNA is through the 10,000 year-old practice of selective breeding. An example of this is cultivating crops with duplicated sets of genes. These plants typically have larger fruit and tens of thousands of newly evolving genes. Humans have also both accidentally and intentionally created hybrid species, throwing together thousands of unfamiliar genes from two species. Modern staple crops, like maize, wheat, rice and fruit trees, are all human-created mutants which differ wildly from their natural ancestors.

A far more rapid process is that of random mutagenesis. If adding one gene using biotechnology was like carefully painting a single dot on a piece of canvas, random mutagenesis is Jackson Pollock. It involves splattering random and sometimes catastrophic changes all throughout a species’ DNA, potentially affecting hundreds of genes at once. This can be achieved chemically with a substance like EMS, but another method frequently used by farmers, “radiation breeding”, simply involves shining a little X-ray or gamma radiation on seeds before planting them. China has even sent seeds to space to give them a nice gamma ray bath.

Predictably enough, random mutagenesis is massively destructive to most of the seeds exposed. However, sometimes a few will mutate in just the right way to gain new functionality such as faster growth or better yield, and these are what farmers are after.

Unlike GM strains created with modern biotechnology – which have to be extensively characterised and regulated – randomly mutagenised seeds are rarely (if ever) characterised, let alone disclosed to consumers as being mutants. Almost no country except Canada has any regulatory restrictions or requirements around the practice, nor does random mutagenesis violate any country’s organic standards.

Thinking about this for a second, we reach an absurd yet true conclusion. It’s completely possible that:

a) A specific mutation could be created in a lab using modern biotechnology. Meanwhile at a farm, completely by chance, the same mutation could be created using random mutagenesis. The resulting two organisms would be identical, but only one of them would ever be characterised, labelled or regulated.
b) An organic company that was fervently against “GMOs” could employ random mutagenesis in their crops. In fact, have you ever bought an organic Rio red grapefruit?

The practice of radiation breeding is on the rise, and possibly far more prevalent than anyone realises. Furthermore, there are solid arguments that conventional GMOs pose less threat than randomly mutagenised seeds. As a result, the current regulatory situation is, to put it politely, extremely strange.

The development of GMOs is an important issue for us to collectively address as we move into the future. Until the science is understood by people like you and me, no informed policy decisions can be made, and we’ll be stuck with the kinds of illogical regulations that currently exist. So if you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You’re a part of the solution, and next time you hear the term “GMO” you can think, “Aha. That means a protein has probably been added.”

Interested for more? Read on with GMOs Pt 2: How to Make Your Very Own!

The Lost Art of Hitch-hiking

Earlier this year I had the good fortune of scoring an offensively cheap flight anywhere in the world, at a time when my lab was closing for a month. I made the obvious choice for any financially challenged individual who’d read On the Road with a little too much enthusiasm. I jetted off to California to hitch-hike around and just, you know… see what would happen.

I ended up catching close to a dozen lifts and covering hundreds of miles. Here are some of the things I learnt about this ancient art form.


1. The First Time Feels Extremely Awkward. And Actually, Is This Even Legal?

“There’s no way you can wait by the road,” Neil told me with concern, adjusting his glasses.“You’ll absolutely get picked up by the Highway Patrol. You’ll have to get a lift at an on-ramp.” Neil was a 40-year old film studies tutor and part-time body builder. He was my couchsurfing host in Santa Barbara. At the time his generosity had baffled me. Looking back, it still does.

I had decided to go to to San Francisco to meet up with some old friends.

We said farewell and I trekked off. Eventually I found the on-ramp he had recommended, which came off a busy intersection. It was short and narrow, and had no emergency lane for cars to pull over. I grimaced, walked halfway up the ramp and hauled my pack over the outer barricade to wait behind it. Hundreds of cars driving through the intersection could see me there, smiling awkwardly with my silly thumb in the air. As car after car zoomed past, rejection blossomed in my heart. I prickled with embarrassment and anxiety. I was constantly expecting angry honks. Was this even legal? Would somebody call the police?

Thankfully, it was only about five minutes until a red-haired Scottish anthropology student pulled over. He tossed his skateboard off the passenger seat to make space and invited me to hop in.

So folks, stick with it. It gets easier each time, and pretty soon you’ll even be disregarding the “pedestrians prohibited” signs. As for the legality, I still have no idea.

Your attitude by the second or third wait

2. “The Good Thing About Hitch-hiking Is That the Assholes Drive Right on By”

Surely no truer words have been written about hitch-hiking than this quote of obscure origins (the best I could do was trace it back to a tweet from 2009).

The people who stopped to give me lifts – all of them complete strangers – are amongst the kindest I’ve ever met. An old hippie woman from Santa Maria rang her son to see if him or any of his friends were driving to San Francisco and could take me. A Chinese tourist invited me to stay with his family in their camper van overnight. A primary school teacher took me for freaking clam chowder with her son, and refused to let me pay anything. I was offered cheese and fruit and beer and weed. People drove miles out of their way to get me to where I was going. Everyone gave advice and helped explain their crazy country.

Hitch-hiking is also a doorway into humanity. You’ll meet people on the road, men and women, young and old, who you would simply never cross paths with in any other situation. I got a lift with an ex-Woodstock rocker cum CEO/evangelical Christian. I was picked up by a travelling circus performer in a van filled with fire sticks, costumes and a bird cage. I rode in a huge Corona delivery truck with a DJ from the Philippines. I met a biochemistry student my age – she’d just been robbed by a stripper in Tijuana and nearly arrested for peeing in an alley.

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t meet a single asshole.


3. Other Hitch-hikers Are Your Enemies

The Scottish anthropology student was only going a few miles back to his college. He dropped me outside Isla Vista where, about two weeks later, Elliot Rodger would roll through the streets on his murderous rampage.

I walked to the nearest on-ramp. It was wide and almost deserted, save for a man in a dirty black dress shirt. He was sitting lackadaisically by the road with a sign that read simply, “NORTH.” The social convention in this situation was unclear to me, so I picked a spot to stand by myself. He came over and slumped down beside me.

The man was filthy and sullen. He told me he was a British programmer who’d spent the past eight months slumming around Mexico, designing venues’ websites in exchange for board and food. He said he’d been robbed in L.A. He had no plans for where he was going, and no idea where he was.

Cars passed every few minutes, but no one pulled over. It annoyed him that I kept putting my thumb in the air. “If they’re going to stop, they’ll stop,” he said from his ball on the ground. I gradually began to worry. It was hard enough to get picked up alone, but this guy was dead weight. He said he’d already been here a couple of hours. I couldn’t imagine anyone being saintly enough to stop for both of us, so I decided to bail.

I lied that I was going back to town to get a bus. I actually just wanted to find an on-ramp away from him. Somehow though, in the brief exchange, I accidentally convinced him it would be a good idea to walk to the next town, and with that he was off. I stayed at our spot, and ten minutes later a chubby grocery store manager was pulling over and opening the door for me.

Wisdom from the ‘60s suggested that guys would get picked up quicker if they had a lady with them, and ladies might feel safer having a guy with them. So with the possible exception of that symbiotic arrangement, avoid other hitch-hikers. It’s just like in evolution – competition is always greatest between members of the same species.


4. Get Your Strategy On

There’s no such thing as a free ride – even in hitch-hiking. Although there’s no money involved, you are actually paying with your services. You’re offering conversation and companionship to people who are bored or lonely or friendly. You’re providing a bit of juice for their altruism meter and a splash of spice for their lives. A lot of people have never picked up a hitch-hiker before, so you might even be offering them a new experience.

It’s a thin market though. This means that you’ve got to polish your product and put in the effort to sell it. Otherwise, you risk waiting around for hours like our British programmer friend.

There’s an excellent site called Hitchwiki which has a bunch of psychology and advice for hitch-hiking. I highly recommend checking it out before you hit the road. Some of the best tools in my experience were:

– Make eye contact with approaching drivers, and smile! You’ve only got a few seconds to make a connection, and not much can beat a smiling face.

– Wear light-coloured clothes. The association of light with Good and dark with Evil is deeply entrenched in the human psyche, and people act on irrational associations when they only have a second to think.

One driver also pointed out a practical side to clothing colour – light colours show off dirt. If your clothes are light-coloured and still clean, it’s much less likely that you’re a murdering alcoholic vagrant, and drivers will feel safer about you.

– Have your hands and arms visible and, if weather permits, wear short sleeves. This exploits the same hard-wired human instinct that smiling works on, the instinct to quickly infer the intentions of a stranger. In this case you’re displaying that you’re not armed, which is something drivers subconsciously check for.

– Bring a light book (no Gone with the Wind or anything by Dostoyevski). Not only will it keep you entertained during the dull spells when no cars are going past, but it will show that you are a civilised and learned individual, exactly the kind of person a driver would want for a conversant.

The jury is still out on whether a sign is a good idea. Some people swear by it, but one driver told me it deters her from stopping because of the strong association between cardboard signs and “panhandlers”.


5. People Who’ve Never Done It Will Try to Dissuade You

I was in Davis, sweating it out in the hot sun as I crossed a bridge over the freeway. A couple of figures slowly approached from the other side of the bridge, pushing mountain bikes up the slope. They had crisp white shirts, name tags – Jehovah’s Witnesses. With big smiles they bid me good day and asked what I was up to. I told them.

“Hitch-hiking?!” They were aghast. “Didn’t you hear the fifties ended?” The irony of their statement surprised me too much to reply.

This is the kind of response that I got from everybody though. “No one does it,” “I’d be so worried about getting murdered,” “It’s not the eighties anymore,” etc. Even some of the lift-givers were in awe of my ostensible bravery. The reason is that everybody has a hitch-hiking horror story, and everybody knows how dangerous hitch-hiking is. Or is it?

Unfortunately it’s difficult to say, because there’ve been no reliable studies conducted into the safety or prevalence of the practice. However, one biased source (take a pinch of salt) has looked at FBI data and calculated that your likelihood of being killed or raped while hitch-hiking is a whopping <drum roll>… 0.0000089%. Whether or not this is accurate, it does seem clear that you’re far more likely to die from falling over than being murdered on the road, and you’re overwhelmingly more likely to die in a common road accident.

It’s well established that humans are exceedingly bad at assessing risk. I have a hypothesis that riskiness is perceived most strongly when situations are outside of our control. Think of shark attacks, airplane crashes, terrorist attacks and hitch-hiker murders. Ironically, the things that are most likely to kill us are all partially or wholly within our control – see: road accidents, smoking and obesity.

So why did the noble art of hitch-hiking atrophy? Some plausible theories have been advanced. All I would add is a speculation that the idea of hitch-hiking being dangerous may have become a self-reinforcing cultural trope. As we all know, rock stars trash hotel rooms, scientists trigger zombie apocalypses, and hitch-hikers get murdered. As fear of hitch-hiking grew in the ’80s and ’90s and fewer and fewer people were doing it, there were fewer positive stories circulating amongst social circles, leaving only the rare grisly tales of attacks to be heard.

So I say to you: shun the naysayers. Yes you’re taking a risk, but you do that every time you leave your house. The risk involved in hitch-hiking is quite low, and the potential rewards massive. However…


6. Be More Prepared than I Was

The Pacific Ocean roared and crashed on the rocks below, and to my right mighty hills climbed steeply away. I was hiking along the deserted Highway 1, guided by the light of the thousands of stars twinkling overhead. I had fucked up.

Back in San Luis Obispo I had hopped into a camper van with the Chinese family mentioned earlier. They barely spoke any English. I soon figured out that the reason they’d picked me up was so I could share driving shifts. I felt pretty guilty when they discovered that I was Australian and not used to driving on the right-hand side of the road.

I had been figuring on getting a lift directly to San Francisco via the 101. They were taking the scenic coastal route though and planning to spend the night in Monterey. What the heck, I thought. It was an adventure, and the scenic route wasn’t too much further.

Four hours later the sun had set and some of the group had become worried about driving in the dark. After a complex debate in Mandarin which I understood nothing of, they pulled over at a tiny roadhouse in the middle of nowhere to spend the night. We shared dinner, and I declined the man’s invitation to share his tiny bed. You can only accept so much hospitality. I cheerfully headed off into the dark, assuming I’d flag someone down.

Almost two hours of later, only three northbound cars had passed by, and I was somewhat glad they hadn’t stopped. I looked so scary hiking alone out here in the middle of nowhere, surely only a murderer would’ve taken their chances with me.

Luckily, just when I was about to give up and sleep in the ditch by the road, I found a camping ground and got to spend the night on my towel under a tree. That should be a separate point: always know where you towel is. It was so cold by the ocean though that, even cocooned up in all the clothes I had, I was shivering and miserable within an hour. I didn’t sleep a wink that night, and I left the next morning with a much greater appreciation of how awful it must be to be homeless.

So, be prepared! There are lots of things I could’ve done better in retrospect. Starting early in the day is a big one. Obviously most people driving long distances get an early start, so if you wait til even midday, your chances of a nice long ride drop significantly.

Bring water. Bring a sleeping bag if there’s any chance of getting stranded. And if you’re somewhere unfamiliar, get a map! I relied solely on Google maps and 3G. This, combined with my crappy phone battery, ensured I had plenty of stop-offs at roadside McDonald’s to charge my phone and eat shameful, shameful, delicious $2 cheeseburgers.

7: Craigslist: Bringing Hitchhiking into the Twisted 21st Century

Or: Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures.

While it’s not technically hitch-hiking, I feel this modern iteration of the ancient art form deserves addressing. Although rideshares are organised in advance, and the driver typically asks to split petrol costs, you’re still essentially riding with a stranger.

Toward the end of my trip I’d wound up in Portland and had two days to get to L.A. to catch my flight home. I weighed up the variables and decided that hitch-hiking was just too risky. I couldn’t afford to get stuck in some desolate stretch of wilderness again. Greyhound buses were an option, but they’re surprisingly expensive not to mention slow. So a friend suggested the dark third option: the rideshares section of Craigslist.

Craigslist is 100% anonymous, meaning it’s 100% dodgy. If you were a maniac who wanted to murder someone, I guarantee that you wouldn’t bother roaming the roads looking for one these days. You’d just stick a rideshare ad on Craigslist.

I posted a friendly ride request, remembering to include a photo of my smiling self and plenty of details. The clientele soon revealed its reliability as offers rolled in for wrong days and even different destinations to what I’d specified. Eventually though some guy got in touch and he at least had the basics straight.

As the planning conversation unfolded, the anonymous messenger revealed an increasingly creepy side. Things culminated in him suggesting we get a motel room together. Ahh, petrol money AND free gay sex. Ambitious, sir.

I abandoned that option and instead agreed to a ride with a girl about my age who said she was a friendly and seasoned hitch-hiker herself.

Seasoned she was. She had spent the last eight years of her life with no fixed address, endlessly criss-crossing the country with friends and strangers, going wherever life and the road took her. She had recently gotten out of jail in West Virginia for possession of weed. With her newfound freedom she had immediately driven to Oregon to get work at the weed harvest, then had headed up to Portland to break into the stripping scene (with great success).

I recognised the valuable life sample size that she represented. I asked, in all her time hitch-hiking, had she had any scary or bad experiences? Steering down the freeway with one hand, taking a puff of her joint, she considered for a moment. “There was this one truckie guy who made an inappropriate suggestion. I just said I wasn’t interested though, and he let it go.” So there you have it from the horse’s mouth. Hitch-hiking could even be nicer than public transport.

I ended up becoming Facebook friends and penpals with several of the colourful and crazy people whom I hitched lifts from. Honestly, it was one of the best parts of the entire trip. So I say to you, as long as you come prepared, and make sure you always know where your towel is, hitch-hiking could just be the highlight of your next unexpected journey.

In the Machine

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Back in the control room I find my friend waiting for me, all smiles as usual. She must have arrived while I was strapped in the machine.

“Hi!” she greets enthusiastically. “I just saw your brain.”

I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise, given the situation. Yet I’m caught off guard. How do you respond to something like that? It feels awkwardly personal, like a housemate admitting that they heard you having sex. Is this more or less weird? I wonder.

On one hand, it’s just bits of lumpy grey matter. We all have them, and they don’t look like much. But on the other, it’s a part of you that no one normally gets to see, and it defines absolutely everything about your personality. Also my friend is a neuroscientist, so who knows what she might have been able to read into it. Was she judging me on the size of my hippocampus? Wait, does size even matter, or is it just how you use it?

She’s been watching my face, and maybe she can read my thoughts after all. “Well, only a bit of it,” she clarifies, sounding a little apologetic. “The prefrontal cortex. It was very… handsome.”

What’s going on? I’m at a Biomedical Imaging Research Centre, and I’ve just had a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan. But let me start from the beginning.

The head researcher, Paul* the PhD student, was waiting for me at reception when I arrived. I didn’t have a medical condition or any real reason to get my brain scanned. I volunteered for the study simply because how freaking cool is it to see your own brain? Pretty damn cool, if you ask me.

We went through the consent and medical forms. No history of epilepsy: check. No metallic implants or bits of shrapnel in my body: check. This last one is very important because fMRI machines create powerful magnetic fields. I assume that if you had, say metal pins in your skull, the machine would suck them right out through your face.

I followed Paul through to the control room, where I met Dave* the imaging technician. He was pleasantly spoken, and my gaydar gave a faint uncertain reading. He invited me to help myself to a platter of sandwiches and make myself comfortable. I did so. Dave returned to working away at three large computer monitors, preparing the scanning software.

Through a wide blue-tinted panel of glass I could spy the fMRI machine, looking like a giant upright donut. It was smooth and white, and very much resembled something you might find in the game Portal, or perhaps Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

How does MRI work? Well to begin with, the machine has to create an extremely powerful and uniform magnetic field. The strength of this field is typically about 1.5 tesla. For perspective, this is about five times the intensity of an average solar sunspot.

To achieve this, the machine is fitted with superconducting magnets which are cooled by liquid helium. The resulting magnetic field excites hydrogen atoms present in water molecules in your brain, causing them to emit a radio frequency signal. This signal is detected, and an image is assembled.

Dave asked me to remove any metal items from my person and follow him into the scanning room. We passed though a reinforced door which read “MAGNETUM” in imposing capitals. Black and yellow triangles on either side warned of “MR- Magnetic Field” and “High Frequency Field”. Yep, watch out for fields.

A series of panels on the ceiling were illuminated to show a beautiful image of blue sky, wispy clouds and tree leaves in the foreground, as if you were lying in a park looking up. “It’s to help people with claustrophobia,” Dave later explained to me, when I was back in the control room watching my friend’s brain materialise on the screen.

I lay down on a special table, with my head at one end of the donut hole. Dave stuffed earplugs into my auditory canals. You see, rapid changes in the magnetic field of the fMRI machine cause the magnets to vibrate, which creates a loud hammering sound. Foam cushioning was then crammed around my head, and a Velcro strap placed across my forehead to hold it in place. It was a bit of pressure and not overwhelmingly comfortable, but it was definitely not as restricting as I had been anticipating. Capillaries and neurons are pretty tiny, so I had assumed my head would have had to be fully immobilised to get an accurate reading. As it was, I could still move a bit.

A plastic visor was clicked into place above my eyes. It held a mirror which redirected my vision toward a monitor at the far end the donut. Wherever he was, Dave manipulated some controls and the table rose up and slid my head into the donut.

Paul came over to see how I was going. Just fine. He placed a controller with a large button into my left hand, explaining that I had to push the button whenever I saw the same image twice in a row. This was to be the experiment. In my right hand he placed a squeezy bulb, which I could use if I ever got claustrophobic and wanted to stop the experiment. Pssh, claustrophobia. I was actually feeling pretty excited and eager to start.

Everyone else left the room, and the quietness was soon replaced with Dave’s soothing voice over the intercom. He informed me that there would be a few scans of varying lengths. The first was to be a mere ten seconds, and would sound a little strange.

A harsh distorted electronic tone burst forth, like a synth from some Daft Punk song. I was glad for the earplugs. It held for a moment, rose in pitch, held for another second or two, and I anticipated the tone rising again – the sacred melody of neuroscience being revealed to me. It dropped back to the first tone instead. Then, quiet.

Dave’s voice dropped in again over the intercom, asking me how that was. He informed me that the next scan would take about four minutes. Ok.

Brand new electronic tones clicked and whirred. At some point the notes settled into regular monotonous pulses, and my thoughts drifted. Is this what life feels like for a photocopier? Stuck in one place, doomed to a single view, hearing the repetitive hum of page after page being scanned and printed. Or I felt like a person still plugged in to the Matrix in a little isolated pod, oblivious to the rest of the world out there.

I closed my eyes and started to feel warm and sleepy. The experimental explanatory statement reads:

“The radiofrequency waves we use to create the MR scans can cause your head and body to warm up slightly. This is not a problem, and you usually won’t notice it at all, as your blood flow will increase slightly to take the heat away.”

Maybe I noticed it.

My mind started to recite the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet. Haha brain, “whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer”, aren’t you clever? Then I started to worry that maybe I was causing the language centres of my brain to light up, giving a misleading reading. Quick, think about maths! No wait, probably I should just think about nothing. But I don’t seem to be able to! Argh!

Finally I decided that if it was going to be a problem, they would’ve warned me in advance not to think about anything. Surely they were just checking my neural structure now anyway.

ERRRK, ERRRK, ERRRK went the machine. Then it fell silent once more.

Dave gave me one more preliminary scan, this time lasting a minute. A softer, more constant buzz hummed for the duration of this one. I imagined the magnetic fields raging and swirling around me, like some divine battle, whipping up the water molecules in my brain and battering them one way then the other. Surely that’s got to do something to one’s perception? I focused inwardly and tried to decide whether I could feel anything. Possibly something subtle… but it could easily by placebo effect. No, probably nothing.

Finally it was time for the experiment proper.

A stream of pictures flashed by on the screen: faces, flowers, buildings, abstract tessellated patterns – repeating and repeating, faster and faster. My finger twitched nervously on the button; I cursed silently when I pressed it accidentally, but grinned with pride when I matched the abstract tessellated patterns. I started seriously doubting my skills of facial recognition.

The second task involved watching coloured dots move across the screen and involved more button-pressing. I found myself feeling strangely exhausted and having to close my eyes between rounds.  At some point I remembered that they were using infrared lasers to track my eye movement, then I worried that maybe I was screwing up the experiment by closing my eyes so often.

I’m so sorry dear science.

When everything was finished, the lovely Dave burnt me a disc containing the map of my brain.  It’s really quite fascinating and gross scrolling through from one hemisphere to the other, watching the cortex burst forth, swirl and evolve as it reaches the midbrain and the medulla and corpus callosum appear, then warp and recede away as you pass out the other side.

I imagine I will treasure this map until the day that my brain shrivels up from some neurodegenerative disease, and ironically I can no longer fathom what I’m looking at. But I suppose it won’t matter by that point. The pictures wouldn’t be of me anyway.

* Name in this article have been changed.

Sin and Vice

I do not write fiction on this blog. I write autobiographical happenings. Here is another one.

*             *             *

I do not know any of the people around me; this is a cloak-and-dagger society. Entry at the door is dependent upon your ability to produce your six-digit number. We carry our number around on a plain white laminated card, a card with no other markings save a blue logo in the corner. The logo resembles three torsos being blown away. Oh, I know what blows us all here. I will probably never see any of these people again.

Surnames are anathema. We have our number. If someone must be called, it is by their first name and the month in which they were born only. Pseudonyms are welcome too. You’ll never really know who anyone is here. Unless of course, you were to see an acquaintance from the outside world. It could happen. After all, who are we? We are everyone, really. Students, young professionals, migrants, workers, the unemployed. Probably, some people you know very well come here.

Welcome to this clandestine Mecca of sin and vice: The Melbourne Sexual Health Centre.

Up an unassuming staircase nestled on Swanston Street you can find our lair. Maybe you will even join our ranks. Everyone is here for the same reason: to get tested/treated for sexually transmitted infections. As I glance around at my comrades, a thought hits me. This would be the ideal place for an accomplished swinger to pick up. After all, you can be pretty sure of two very crucial things about all the people here:

1. They’re sexually active
2. They’re responsible when it comes to monitoring their sexual health

What more invitation could you want?

But no, this isn’t happening at all. Something is wrong. A blanket of distance, suspicion, maybe even shame, is lying thick upon the whole place. Nobody makes eye contact, nobody is smiling. People play on their phones or read a book. We could just as easily be early-morning commuters as the liberated sexual adventurers that we presumably are.

But of course, I know the reason. Despite the reasonable bet that any given person here is sexually open, it’s also the one environment in which you can’t help but think “-and there’s a damn good chance that they have a venereal disease.” Is that cutie opposite you just here for a check-up, or because they’re oozing something from their nether regions?

So we sit and wait in our isolation.

Names ring out one after the other, as triage nurses and doctors poke their heads out of doorways and hallways to call in their next sample – Jason, born in December; Maple, born in April; Sigfried, born in July; Lucy, born in December. An efficient production line of genitalia being inspected, scrubbed clean and flung back out into the world to wreak further mischief. Help yourself to some condoms and lube before you go.

A man walks past carrying a clear plastic jar of his own steamy urine. Chlamydia test, probably. He’s clearly feeling awkward about carrying his urine past a bunch of strangers. I want to tell him: there’s no judgement here, hombre.

When you first arrive you have to sign in at a touch-screen computer using your 6-digit number, and there are some questions to answer. You then get to sit, wait, and watch other new people arriving up the stairs. You observe their body language and you can pretty much guess which question they’re up to.

A tall girl squints in concentration and counts off on her fingers. How many sexual partners have you had in the past year? Two dreadlocked traveller-types glance at each other. Have you ever had sex with someone overseas? A freckled red-haired guy sways his head side to side indecisively. Have you ever had male-to-male sex? An older gentleman glances around. Have you ever had sex with a sex worker?

I have some friends who also come here. Everyone’s got their own little system. For one of them, it’s a 6-monthly routine. For another, it’s every new sex partner. The nurses know her by name. You could argue that she’s wasting state-funded resources, but I guess it’s better than spraying Gonorrhoea around.

On this visit, I have to give blood because of a medical procedure I had while overseas. Oh that’s right, you can get Hepatitis C like that. Goody. But blood is satisfyingly high-info: they screen you for HIV and syphilis at the same time, which they’ll normally only do if you have symptoms or probable cause. I’m not deprived of peeing in a jar either, so who am I to complain?

You get to phone up in a week for your results.

Good luck not winning the reverse lotto, and I’ll leave you with a timeless reminder from the U.S. government:

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The Barang’s Guide to Cambodian Buddhism

Upon arriving in Phnom Penh you’ll  surely be struck by the monks wandering around in bright orange robes and the intricate colourful pagodas. Glorious Buddhism! However, beneath these overt displays of the religion, what’s not immediately clear is that this is not your standard version of Theravada or Mahayana Buddhism. The world of the Khmer people is one that’s teeming with the spirits of the dead.

Like many South-East Asian countries, when Cambodia adopted Buddhism it didn’t signal a complete abandonment of earlier beliefs such as ancestor reverence and Hinduism. Rather, all these things were synthesised into a complex and sometimes ill-defined tapestry of folklore, spirituality and superstition. After discussions with a number of Khmer adults and children, I’ve compiled this quick guide to get you oriented.

1.   Much like in The Sixth Sense, there are ghosts all around us. While adults generally can’t see them, cats and dogs can. Babies can too, but for most people the ability atrophies during childhood. A few shaman-types who retain this ability can provide a link to the world of the dead.

2.   When you die you will turn into a ghost. In fact, so will every animal. Strangely also like in the Sixth Sense, <SPOILERS> initially you will not realise that you are dead. As a ghost, you will not have one of your index fingers, which presumably you don’t tend to notice right away.

3.   After seven days you will try to visit your family at home, and this is when the horrible truth will hit you. At this point, several different things can happen:

  • If you were a very good person in life you will be taken to Heaven, where Buddha lives. This essentially means achieving the traditional Buddhist aim of breaking free from the endless cycle of rebirth and suffering.
  • If you were an evil person in life you will be taken to Hell. Tortures include having to climb a tree covered in needles and being hung upside-down in a vat of boiling water. The duration of your stay in Hell and your specific punishment will depend on your sins. For example, if you said bad things a lot in life you will have your mouth stretched open to the point of agonising pain.
  • If you were really evil in life you will turn into a special giant ghost covered in blood that wanders the land in solitude. This is a particularly terrible and feared spirit, and may be taller than a house.
  • If you were neither particularly good nor particularly evil you will stay in between, lingering in the world for an unknown time.

Regardless of which of these fates awaits you, if you didn’t make it to Heaven then sooner or later you will be reborn as a human or some other animal and go through the cycle again.

4.   Ok, so that’s the destiny awaiting you in the afterlife. There are also several other ghosts and spirits swirling in the world:

  • Every piece of land that somebody owns has a guardian angel to protect it from bad spirits. These angels live in the colourfully painted concrete ghost houses you see on stilts outside many abodes and buildings. Offerings here keep the angel benevolent and motivated in its job.
  • Every house that gets built also gains a guardian spirit that lives in the house and protects it as a second line of defence, should the angel prove insufficient.
  • Very large old trees in forests are often inhabited by a tree spirit. If you are travelling in an unknown place and want to rest beneath such a tree or even pee there, it’s important to ask the spirit’s permission first. If you neglect to do this the spirit could make you sick or incite snakes/insects to come after you. If the tree is cut down the spirit will leave and look for a new tree, like any good hermit crab of the sea.
  • The ghosts of humans who drown in rivers are doomed to linger there and watch over the river. They can never leave and be reborn until another ghost takes their place. So be careful around rivers, or one of the drowned ghosts just may try to swap places with you.
  • If a mother dies during childbirth she will become a particularly chilling ghost. For the 7 days before she realises she’s dead, she will climb to the top of a tree and sing a wailing song of lamentation for her lost child.
  • The ghosts of children, however, have a happier fate. They are a playful lot and have the right to come and go where they please – even guardian angels and house spirits will not turn them away. Many households hang small red clothes and candy on their fences to make sure they are provided for. Now, remember how babies can see the spirit world? Well for this reason the children ghosts like to play with them. Sometimes though, they can accidentally scare the baby or exhaust it from playing for too long, and cause it to start crying. In this case it’s often just a matter of the Khmer mother telling the children ghosts “Ok, that’s enough for today” and they will leave, soon restoring the baby’s happiness.
  • A Chinese belief, which has spread to some of the cities in Cambodia, is that the children ghosts often pick a shop to live in. They alert the shop owner to their presence in a dream. If the shop owner then keeps them happy by buying occasional presents like candy and toys, the ghosts will induce lots of customers to come into the shop, often without quite knowing why they’ve come in. If the child ghosts are neglected though, business will be bad.

5.   People make offerings of rice at pagodas so that ghosts of family members will have something to eat. People pray for ghosts in order to accelerate their rebirth. People also offer small balls of rice for the baby and children ghosts.

6.   If you lied a lot during your life then your ghost will have a tiny mouth. This is why thin rice noodles are also brought to the pagoda – so the ghosts with tiny mouths can have something to eat.

7.   An important belief held by Cambodians in the countryside is that the living and the dead must never cohabit, lest ill events occur. For example, if the ghost of a deceased husband were to remain in the family house and was unable to move on from his living wife, he could accidentally cause her to become sick. There’s also the darker possibility of a ghost intentionally causing harm to its family, either because of some unresolved resentment, or become it wants to be united with their ghosts. This is one of the reasons the guardian house spirit and angel are so important: to keep out dead relatives. The family will go to the pagoda to make offerings to their ancestors, not do it in the home.

8.   Finally, one belief practised by Cambodians from the countryside is that it’s essential to protect the house from spirits during child birth. The midwife will draw an X on the door and hang something sharp there like a knife or pair of scissors, and all windows must be sealed. This gives the best protection from spirits for the mother and infant.

This is obviously a huge simplification of the immensely complex and varied Khmer belief system, but it’s not a bad starting point. If there are any important elements I’ve omitted or misrepresented, please let me know and I shall make amendments. See you around the streets!