Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Horizontal Genetic Transfer

When we think of genetic transfer in organisms we think of direct transfer from parents to offspring. But this is not the whole story. For billions of years genes have been transferred between species by a mechanism known as ‘horizontal transfer’. In essence, genes transported this way can become active in the host organism, therefore, contributing to the creature’s metabolism and perhaps ultimately contributing to the evolution of the species. Bacteria are particularly adept at harnessing this mechanism for its own good through the process of conjugation. Genes involved in antibiotic resistance are often transferred this way between bacteria, not necessarily from the same species.

Now you may ask how can this be? How is it possible for genes to be transferred this way? Even genes from plants have been identified in higher animals such as mammals. Although there are several mechanisms involved, retroviruses remain the main vector. As a digression, it is debatable whether viruses can be counted as life. They are comprised of a protein coat enveloping a piece of genetic code and that is basically it. They do not metabolise or grow or exhibit the main characteristics which distinguish life from non-life and yet they are highly successful and ubiquitous, infecting virtually every organism on the planet. I’m inclined to consider viruses as life, but not as we know it. Unfortunately, I don’t have space here to put forth my reasoning and Dioclese castigates me for being too wordy. Arse. Digression endeth.  

Retroviruses have the endearing habit of interlinking their DNA with that of their host. Once the viral DNA leaves during replication it may take chunks of the host DNA with it, thus, the virus particle is able to transfer DNA and genes between members of the same species and between species.

Mosquitos and other blood sustained insects can also act as agents of gene transfer as their blood meal contains DNA from the host. When the insect imbibes again, some of that DNA can be injected into the new host. How foreign DNA integrates into the new host is not well understood but science has shown that it does occur. As mosquitos can feed on different mammalian species this route acts as an important device for horizontal gene transfer.

Various vectors can be utilised by scientists for the process of controlled genetic modification especially involving domestic plant and animal species. In this way, genes which confer positive attributes can be placed into crop and animal genomes. People often have a negative knee-jerk reaction when it comes to genetic modification. However, it should be kept in mind that nature has been transferring genes between species for aeons.    

Humans are not immune from horizontal gene transfer and at least 150 foreign genes have been shown to be intercalated into the human genome including genes from fungi and plants. Foreign genes can undergo regulation by the host genome thus becoming functional. This is not necessarily a positive process. The mechanism is uncomprehending and uncontrolled and is as likely to introduce deleterious genes as well as genes exerting a positive influence. Indeed, several cancer-causing genes (oncogenes) have been found to have originated from other species. Ain’t dat the sad truth.

Hippies, please take note: next time you decide to hug a tree you may actually be snuggling up to a relative- please be gentle. 

I'm a biologist that doesn't like trees- they stare so

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Wakey Wakey

                             I am not a morning person

Over the past 40 years, I have dutifully risen at 6.30am every morning for work. However, I've never really adjusted to functioning at this time in the morning. Everything had to be set up and organised the night before. Clothes laid out, sandwiches made, and car keys exactly in the same place. Every morning consisted of a stumbling, shambling gait, in the semi-dark, as I entertained an imperfect error prone ritual. Sandwiches would be forgotten, and on several occasions odd shoes worn. The odd shoe scenario caused much mirth amongst my colleagues, although it was recognised as part and parcel of my many quirks. Civility and civilisation would only occur after my second cup of strong coffee.

Since retirement I've been suiting myself and rarely rise before 10.00am and to be honest I feel much better for the new regime. I'm not a night Owl either and generally, I'm tucked in and ready for sleep for about 10.00pm. This retirement thingy is certainly to be recommended, tis a wonder I didn't retire years ago. Perhaps the prospect of starving to death was too much to bear?

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

My Little Brony

‘My Little Pony’ is a syndicated animated cartoon series which has been running since 2010. It features a pack of magical ponies facing the perils of modern pony life. As you would expect, the show attracts a certain demographic: pre-teenage girls and I understand it is highly successful. The series is based on Hasbro’s ‘My Little Pony’ toy line. Subsequent to the TV series, there has been a burgeoning of merchandising. A plethora of spin-off products exist featuring DVDs, books and a myriad of toys. I confess I’ve watched one episode and only because my granddaughter was a fan. Although It gave me no pleasure, my granddaughter seemed enthralled and squirmed with delight, on my knee, at every plot twist. My impression: typical animated fare for the targeted audience and dripping in sweet saccharine. The plots are generic, magical and highly predictable. The sort of programme which is highly appealing to six-year-old girls.     

Why should I be bothered to mention the series? Could it be that Flaxen has finally fallen into the pit of despair and advanced dotage? NO, I have a sinister motive to relate. Well, it seems that there is a growing fan base amongst grown men. The aforementioned fans are unimaginatively known as ‘bronies’. Groups of bronies exist on social media and there are enough bronies, in the US at least, for the organisation of annual conventions (Brony Cons).

I could care less what law-abiding folk get up to and if they receive pleasure from buying plastic ponies and dressing up in garish garb then, why not. That said, I would be lying if I didn’t find the ‘hobby’ rather bizarre, cringeworthy and downright risible. Therefore, I feel free to wax great about a sub-culture of which I know bugger all about and of which I have no comprehension. Thus, this brief exposition should be viewed in the spirit of social commentary. Who am I to judge? But I’m going to, anyway.

All you need to know about this bunch of weirdos can be gleaned from the fount of all knowledge, ‘YouTube’. There is no doubt that bronies are earnest and passionate about their chosen hobby. And you will not be wholly surprised if the typical bronie fulfils a certain stereotype. Imagine a young man who is socially awkward and inept, an introvert with poor sartorial taste and bad hygiene. A man bereft of romantic interludes and who probably resides in his parent’s basement. A particular YouTube video revolves around an intrepid reporter at ‘Bronie Con’. The highlight of the video documents a question and answer session between the reporter and a typical bronie. The enthusiastic bronie is shown a series of images relating to the main equine characters. Without hesitation, the fella/filly is able to identify the various ponies with veritable aplomb and verve. However, he becomes stumped when shown the final image. With a certain relish and satisfaction, the reporter (for it is he), pronounces the picture as a representation of a vagina.

We live in a free society and the majority of bronies are harmless, innocuous but very strange. They break no laws and obtain some solace from their hobby in a cruel, loveless world. But there is a dark side to the ‘fandom’ (not a real word). Apparently, a minority of bronies are so infatuated with the characters that they become involved in the phenomenon of ‘clopping’. From what I can gather, clopping involves having ‘sex’ with soft pony toys. I’m a broad-minded gent, but onanism with soft toys is both repellent and deeply creepy. Indeed, it induces both revulsion and pity in equal measure. Mayhap the parents need to peer into their son’s basement, grab them by the balls (if they still have any) and thrust them out into the real world where they can interact with normal folk, and heaven forbid, girls.  


Saturday, 30 June 2018

JWs The Reprise

They come in pax/packs

I have written about Jehovah’s Witnesses before. I know a little about this cult, for cult it is, as I had the unhappy privilege of growing up in a JW household. To say I hold these folks and their so-called doctrines in scant regard is a veritable understatement. I haven’t experienced their baleful knock for a couple of years now. Imagine my surprise when I heard a rat-tat on my door at 11.00am last Monday and was confronted by a well-appointed young man. He smiled the beatific smile of the true believer and opined: “I am a Jehovah witness.” His candid approach threw me off guard for a second as their invariable opening gambit is usually along the lines of: “The world is an evil mess, but do you think it will always be so?” This question is not expected to yield an answer, it is merely a tactic whereby the earnest young man will launch into a well-rehearsed scree about how Jehovah is about to intervene in this wicked world and rid Satan and his evil henchmen from this existence thus heralding in the kingdom of God on earth, but only for those who follow the one true way. Guess what that might be? Anyway, before my protagonist could launch into his script, I asked the delightfully innocent question? “From whence does evil originate?”  Before I continue it should be noted that JWs always travel in pairs, a young fella with an older more experienced colleague. In this regard, I was not to be disappointed. An older gent was clearly visible in the driver seat of the car. He was listening intently to his younger brethren and would surely intervene if his acolyte started to wallow or get out of his depth. The young JW smiled with relish as this was something he could counter with one of his stock replies: “Satan is responsible for the evil in this world. And imperfect humans have the free will to follow Satan’s evil path or follow the good grace of Jehovah.” He had clearly learned this answer by wrote but had not thought it through or had any idea of its devasting implications. The problem of free will is a thorn in the theological hide of any thinking Christian, especially in the light of the conventional view of the Christian God. The attributes of God are not just superlative they are without bounds or limits. This stance causes a lot of inconsistencies which cannot be resolved. I countered, thusly: “How can man have free will if God is aware of all our actions past and present. When we are born we are destined to follow a mapped-out plan of life for which we have no control. If we perform evil it is because we have no choice to do otherwise. Therefore, morally we should receive no opprobrium or admonishment for the evil we do. Similarly, if we perform wholly good deeds we should accrue no praise as we are robots following an unerring script. God is therefore ultimately responsible for all evil in the world and is no different from an evil Demon and therefore not worthy of worship. To think otherwise of your deity invites limitation and the dreaded notation of imperfection.” He looked flustered and turned to the impassive fellow in the car. Without turning his head, the Elder (for it is he) made a terse hand gesture. The Acolyte (who else) made an implausible excuse and left.

Now you may think I scored an easy victory against a young and inexperienced man. But my intent was not humiliation. I was hoping to plant an intellectual seed. It would be foolish of me to think that our brief encounter will bring forth a revolution in this young man’s mind resulting in the eschewing of his religion to which he was born. Mayhap it will make him question some of his deeply indoctrinated beliefs and perhaps read outside the prescribed JW tracts. This seems unlikely but I’m an optimist at heart.

I don’t expect them to come back and was rather surprised that they turned up so soon after we had moved into our retirement abode. A coincidence? I suspect not. They are probably trolling through the real estate listings looking for new meat. Tis a fundamental tenant of the JW doctrine to ‘save’ as many of us poor unredeemed sinners before the final confrontation between the forces of good and evil. On this occasion, they failed. Therefore, I will be denied, ‘paradise on earth’ according to the JW worldview. I must admit their picture of paradise holds no appeal. Heaven or hell is a matter of taste and perspective. I am content with my oblivion, this holds no terrors and no prospect of the worst horrors, eternal boredom. Arse.   

Postscript: My good friend, Dioclese, has admonished me for not posting more frequently since retirement. And, for this, I am guilty as charged. In truth, retiring is bloody hard work and I haven’t had the time to put pen to paper of late. However, don’t despair gentle readers, the flaxen haired one, the man of wondrous physical aspect and proportions, will have more time to spin out his wisdom to the unenlightened masses. Ain’t dat the sad truth?    
Something to look forward to

Saturday, 23 June 2018


And so, the deed has been done and the course has been run. I was scheduled to retire on 29th June but after much thought, I decided to take a week’s leave and therefore finished work yesterday. However, I’ll be back next Friday for leaving speech and pressies.

 Interestingly the new property is infested with rabbits. Nearly ran over two on the drive. Looks like I’ll be hunting a few for the pot with the bow. Unfortunately, I don’t have a ferret anymore, so no hunting with ‘good ole Shagger’. Anyway, rabbit meat will make a welcome addition to our menu, especially as it costs nowt and I’m as tight as a gnat’s chuff.

The last two weeks have been absolutely hectic and crazy. Moving house and retiring in a single bang is not to be recommended. But tis all over now, and, I can enter the last stage of my life in the spirit of blissful tranquillity.

On a poignant note. Our beloved dog, Chloe, was buried in our old property where she has lain in restful repose for the last two years. My wife was very close to Chloe and was devastated when she died. She asked if I could dig her up for reinterring at our new place. It wasn’t a job I contemplated with relish and thankfully my son volunteered to lend a hand. Now Chloe has a final resting place in our Rose garden.

As a retired country gentleman, I’ll have more time for blogging. Not every day, but more than I’ve been posting of late. You have been warned.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Moving House: A very sensible and brief post

I haven't had much time to blog over the last 2 weeks due to the upheaval associated with relocating our life.

Not been the best of weeks. We officially moved into our new house last Monday. As our stuff was arriving by van on Tuesday morning we spent a night on the bare floor- did wonders for my glass back. Of course, it piddled down for two solid days. Next problem: couldn't get all our stuff in a 60sq metre van and had to hire a small truck to transport the rest. Tis amazing how much crap that can be accumulated considering that when we first arrived in Nuzzieland we had virtually bugger all and had to start from scratch. Enough moaning, otherwise I'll be labelled as the archetypal wingeing Pomm.

So, the worst is over, I suspect. Still, have custody of the old house until Wednesday. At least it will give us the chance to give the place a good clean. I've got 2 more weeks of work and officially retire on June 29th. I suppose this is where life gets interesting. Less stress, no more work and the new house can be organised and sorted, at leisure. It hasn't really struck home that I'm retiring. A complete change and direction in life. Can't wait........

Normal service will be resumed when I can find my medication. Arse.

Thursday, 7 June 2018


And so it has come to pass: Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away, now I need a place to hide away, or at least somewhere to take my medication.

I've handed in my resignation. On the 30th June, I become a man of infinite leisure. A country Lord living a simple life, enjoying simple pleasures. Anyway, I'm going to share with the world my letter of resignation. 

"As one door closes, another falls off its hinges and clouts you on the noggin"   

1st June 2018
Dear Prof. Mugumbo,
I am respectively tendering my resignation as a Senior Scientist positioned in the Institute of Difficult Stuff, Tipton. I understand I’m obliged to render 4 working weeks, as notice. Consequently, the commencement of my notice transpires from Friday the 1st June 2108, to encompass all hitherto days culminating in the demise of service on 29th June 2018. 
I would like it to be known that I’ve enjoyed service under your watch. You have proved to be a most professional of managers and a man worthy of esteem and respect. It is with great sadness that I relinquish employment, but I’m forced to do so under circumstances not completely within my control, but governed by fates, capricious and undiscerning. Indeed, as mortal men, we are just floating jetsam in the great ‘sea’ of change. Tossed and rendered senseless by forces beyond our control- feeble humans, that we are.
As you are no doubt aware, my beloved wife, Mrs. Saxon, has been beleaguered by a thousand furies and assailed by the wrath of rheumatoid arthritis. Tis a malady which waxes and wanes, but to date shows no abate. Consequently, my hand has been forced and I feel obliged to follow. In truth, the laboratory is best served by the recruitment of new, young and fresh-faced staff (nay, vibrant), unsullied by the burden of life’s tribulations. This is a gift I bestow upon the laboratory. Sir, do not squander but apply my selfless beneficence to the greater good. 
Yours Sincerely and with aplomb,
Flaxen Saxon