Field of Science

Jurassic World fact check: can we clone dinosaurs?

One of this summer’s biggest hits was the movie Jurassic World, which earned a record $209 million on its opening weekend back in June. It's so popular that it’s still showing in theaters now, more than two months later.

Like its predecessors, the fourth movie in the Jurassic Park series features a theme park filled with dinosaurs that were created by cloning dinosaur DNA. In the movie, the dino DNA was collected from mosquitos preserved in amber, which (in the fictional movie world) had sucked the blood of dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The success of the movie spurred to conduct a poll, asking Americans if they believed it was currently possible to create dinosaurs from DNA found in fossils. 28% said yes.

It makes for a fun story, but is there any science behind it? Well, yes and no.

Can we clone a living organism entirely from scratch, just from its DNA sequence alone? Yes! Not only can we do it, but it has already been done. Genome scientists Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith, both former colleagues of mine, achieved this at least twice, creating bacteria by synthesizing the necessary DNA and then “booting up” a new bacterial cell, which went on to replicate itself and grow into colonies of brand-new bacteria. Very impressive work, although bacterial genomes are quite small, only a few million nucleotides long.

Moving up a step, just last year, Hopkins scientist Jef Boeke (who is now at NYU) and his team synthesized an entire yeast chromosome. Yeast are single-celled like bacteria, but they're eukaryotes, evolutionarily closer to humans and dinosaurs than bacteria. Eukaryotes keep their DNA sequestered inside a nucleus, which in turn makes them way harder to clone from scratch. Synthesis of the remaining yeast chromosomes is under way, and it’s entirely feasible that we’ll have artificial yeast in just a year or two.

As of today, though, no one has even come close to synthesizing a multi-cellular creature like a dinosaur–or a chicken, or a frog, or a human. But in principal, it is possible to create a living animal just from its DNA, though it might take a few more decades to do it.

So yes, we might someday create animals from DNA. But dinosaurs? Alas, this half of the Jurassic World question gets a big “no.”

The problem is, despite the compelling story in the movie, there is no dinosaur DNA left on the planet. None at all, despite what you might have read. Dinosaurs went extinct about 65 million years ago, mostly likely because of a massive asteroid impact in the Yucatan peninsula, and DNA simply doesn’t last that long.

But wait, you might ask: what about all these stories about Neandertal DNA, or woolly mammoth DNA, or other ancient species? These studies are true and are very exciting. Scientists have reconstructed the genome of our Neanderal relatives from very old bones, around 30,000-40,000 years old. We can extract DNA from bones that old, although the DNA is badly degraded. I worked on an ancient DNA project myself, using an 11,000 year old mammoth thigh bone to reconstruct part of its genome. We were able to recover quite a lot of mammoth DNA from that bone.

Other work on ancient samples has demonstrated that in the most extreme conditions, where the bones have been continuously frozen in the Greenland ice sheet, DNA may survive as long as 1 million years. However, dinosaurs lived in temperate climates where DNA degrades far more quickly, and virtually all dinosaur DNA was probably gone within a few thousand years after the dinosaurs became extinct.

(By the way, that same YouGov poll that asked about cloning dinosaurs also asked "Do you believe that dinosaurs and humans once lived on the planet at the same time?" 40% of Americans said yes, demonstrating once again that Americans are woefully misinformed about evolution and the history of the planet.)

So alas, a mosquito that sucked the blood of a Tyrannosaurus rex, and then got swallowed and preserved in tree sap, would not yield any T. rex DNA for present-day cloning experiments.

This doesn’t mean we’ll never have a Jurassic Park, but if we do, we’ll have to guess at what that dino DNA looked like, perhaps using the DNA of birds. Perhaps, though, we should focus on saving the species we have left, which we are rapidly wiping out, before worrying about reviving long-lost dinosaurs.

Scott Walker takes $250 million from the University of Wisconsin, gives it to billionaire sports team owners

Just two months ago I wrote about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's dual attacks on his state's flagship university. Walker, who is currently running for the Republican nomination for President, is moving to eliminate tenure for professors at the University of Wisconsin, while at the same time implementing an enormous $250 million budget cut.

This week we learned a new reason why Gov. Walker cut that $250 million: he wants to give it to wealthy hedge fund managers to build a new basketball arena for the Milwaukee Bucks.

No kidding. I can only imagine what my colleagues at the University of Wisconsin are thinking.

On Wednesday, Walker signed a bill that would spend $250 million of taxpayers' money to build the new arena. Last year, the team was purchased by two billionaire hedge fund managers, Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens. In what's become a standard ploy, the new owners threatened to move the team if they didn't get a new arena.

As the Washington Post reported on Thursday, one of the team's other owners is Jon Hammes, one of Walker's top campaign fundraisers. Hammes' son recently donated $150,000 to a pro-Walker super PAC. For the Hammes, this must seem to be a pretty good return on investment: $150K plus some fundraising work in return for $250 million. (Obviously, Walker will deny that there's been any quid pro quo. But he's been working on this deal for months: according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal, he included $220 million in state money for the arena in his budget back in February, but state lawmakers took it out.)

The libertarian Cato Institute denounced the public financing of the arena, according to the New York Times. Other Republicans are furious with Walker because one of the team's co-owners (Lasry) is a major supporter of Hillary Clinton's campaign.

When I wrote about Walker's attacks on the University of Wisconsin in June, I was mystified by why he would go on the offensive against an institution that his state should be incredibly proud of–and that provides countless benefits to the state and the nation. It seemed petty and vindictive, and it still does.

But the money cut from the University of Wisconsin, $250 million, exactly matches the state's contribution to the new arena for the billionaire hedge fund owners of the Milwaukee Bucks. It's now obvious what Scott Walker's priorities are.

Birth control pills have dramatic anti-cancer benefits

Women now have a surprising new reason to go on the pill.

Birth control pills have been around since the 1960s, when they offered women a revolutionary degree of control over their reproductive capabilities. Over the years, the formulation of "the pill" has changed, but it remains one of the most widely used, and most effective, forms of pregnancy prevention.

This week, a very large new study in The Lancet Oncology reported that use of birth control pills provides a significant, and surprisingly large, reduction in the risk of endometrial cancer. The benefit lasts for decades–women who used the pill in the 1960s have the same reduction in cancer rates as women who took it more recently. This is very good news for women.

The new study combined data from 36 earlier studies covering a total of 27,276 women with endometrial cancer and 115,743 without it. The authors–a large group called the Collaborative Group on Epidemiological Studies on Endometrial Cancer–have been working for ten years to collect and analyze this massive data set. Overall, they found that the risk of endometrial cancer in women who had used the pill was only 69% of the risk in women who had never used it. The benefit increased with longer usage: for every 5 years on the pill, women had a 24% reduction in the relative risk of cancer.
Relative risk of endometrial cancer (red line) based on how many years a woman used birth control pills. From "Endometrial cancer and oral contraceptives: an individual participant meta-analysis of 27,276 women with endometrial cancer from 36 epidemiological studies", published online 4 August 2015 in The Lancet Oncology.

Endometrial cancer is the most common gynelogical cancer, accounting for 6% of all cancers in women. The National Cancer Institute estimates that in the U.S., 54,870 women will be diagnosed with endometrial cancer in 2015, and 10,170 will die.

To put the benefit of birth control pills in numeric terms, the new study reports that:
"In high-income countries, 10 years use of oral contraceptives was estimated to reduce the absolute risk of endometrial cancer arising before age 75 years from 2.3 to 1.3 per 100 women."
The benefit is even larger for women who used the pill longer: after 15 years the risk of cancer drops to 1%. The authors estimate that over the past 50 years, the pill has prevented 400,000 endometrial cancers in western Europe, the U.S., and Australasia, including 200,000 in the past decade.

The policy implications of this new study are profound, and likely to be controversial. Women have long struggled to control their reproductive rights, and in many countries access to the pill is still very limited. Even in the U.S. the fight for access to birth control continues: just last year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a private corporation, Hobby Lobby, that claimed it had religious objections to providing birth control as part of its health care coverage. (Never mind the absurdity of the notion that a corporation could claim to have religious views.)

Now there's a new and very different reason to provide birth control pills as part of health care coverage. Time will tell whether this dramatic cancer prevention benefit will trump the objections of those who want to deny women access to the pill.

Congress passes a colossally bad idea for science funding

When was the last time anyone in Congress passed a truly good idea? I can’t remember.

But they do manage to come up with bad ideas, and sometimes these ideas make their way into laws, causing no end of harm.

This month, two U.S. Congressmen have come up with the idea to offer prizes rather than grants for scientific research. They were inspired, according to a story in Science magazine, by DARPA’s prize competitions for robotic vehicle design, as well as the private XPRIZE competition.

Now Congress wants the National Institutes of Health to give out prizes for biomedical research. They've tucked this idea into the 21st Century Cures Act, a bill funding the NIH and FDA that was passed by the House of Representatives on July 10. Congressman Todd Young of Indiana and Andy Harris of Maryland amended the bill to require NIH to create a new prize competition.

This is a staggeringly bad idea. Why? Where do I begin? Well, first of all, biomedical research costs money–lots of money. Everyone I know in biomedical research, in which I’ve been working for 25 years, needs money before they make their discoveries. A prize at the end is nice, but you can't do anything if you can't pay for equipment, supplies, and (perhaps Congress will be surprised to learn this) people’s salaries.

Flawed though it may be, the current U.S. funding system works pretty well: scientists write up their ideas as proposals, NIH or NSF convenes panels of experts to review those proposals, and the best ones (more or less) get funded.

A prize, on the other hand, is awarded after the work gets done. If this is how we’re going to fund science, then very little good work will get done. Only rich people, or rich companies, will be able to compete for prizes in biomedical research. That's how science worked in the 1800s and before, when the only way to do science was to find a wealthy patron, or to be wealthy yourself. Not surprisingly, things moved slowly back then.

But wait, it gets worse. These NIH prizes will be decided by a small committee, in a setup that will be ripe for corruption. According to the new bill, the committee will have 9 members:
  • The NIH Director
  • 4 members appointed by the NIH Director
  • One member appointed by the Speaker of the House
  • One member appointed by the majority leader of the Senate
  • One member appointed by the minority leader of the House
  • One member appointed by the minority leader of the Senate
This just gets worse and worse. There’s no way that 9 people, even if they’re all great scientists, can choose the best idea from among all areas of biomedical research. This is why NIH convenes hundreds of scientific review panels every year to do peer review: they need experts who understand the specifics of the research.

These 9 people will be responsible for giving away $80 million per year in prizes. In the scientific world, that's a huge program. Look at it this way: the Nobel committee gives out five prizes of $3 million each, or $15 million per year. If this passes the Senate, Congress will have created a prize that is 5 times larger than the Nobels, to be handed out by a yet-to-be-named committee of 9.

But this committee is fraught with problems: 5 out of 9 members will be political appointees, with no requirements that any of them have any scientific or medical training. And because the Director of NIH is a political appointee, one could argue that all 9 are political appointees. What's more, the appointments will last for 5 years, making them truly powerful committee members who will be unaccountable to the public or to anyone else.

One thing is certain: the prize committee members will be flooded with lobbying efforts to sway their choices. This sounds a lot like how Congress works; or rather, how the ugly underbelly of Congress operates.

But wait: there's more! The House bill says that these competitions are open to
“any person … without regard to the person’s place of incorporation, primary place of business, citizenship, and residency.” 
In other words, NIH will give these prizes to foreign citizens–and companies! So apparently they will take some portion of NIH's budget, and instead of awarding it in grants to U.S. scientists, they will give prizes to companies in, say, Russia.

Don’t get me wrong: I think science should be supported in every country around the world. But each country has its own system, and the NIH is by far the most important source of funding for biomedical science in the U.S. We just can't afford to have NIH give out prizes to the entire world. Competition for grants is already fierce, with fewer than 20% of scientific proposals being funded today. Did I mention that this prize competition is a terrible idea?

Here's another little gem: the bill allows the NIH Director to outsource the administration of the prize competition to a private company, who can take 15% of the money for itself. Was a private contractor involved in writing this bill? I’m guessing some company is already making plans to siphon off precious research funds running these competitions–and I wouldn't be surprised if they had a hand in drafting the bill.

The 21st Century Cures Act has some great things in it, such as an extra $1.75 billion per year for NIH over the next 5 years. Many people, scientists and non-scientists alike, would like to see that happen. But Section 1002, Prize Competitions needs to be deleted when the Senate takes this up.

We could certainly do a better job allocating scarce funds to biomedical research in the U.S., but setting aside a large sum to be awarded by a politically-appointed Prize Committee at NIH is a staggeringly bad idea. Let’s stop this train before it leaves the station.

Lending millions for bad education

Would you pay the same tuition for a Harvard degree as for a second-rate school that you've never heard of? Probably not. But thanks to the federal government’s help, that’s exactly what we are all doing. It turns out that many of the biggest beneficiaries of federal loan programs for graduate schools are low quality, for-profit universities that have figured out how to turn federal largesse into nice fat profits.

A new study from the Center for American Progress finds that just 20 universities account for nearly one-fifth of all grad student debt, a total $6.6 billion. What’s perhaps most surprising is who those universities are: 10 of the 20 are for-profit schools, including two foreign schools.

The problem here is that these schools offer terrible value for the money. There’s little debate (except from the schools themselves) that these schools have very low standards for admission. The only requirement seems to be money, and if you don’t have it, they will help you borrow it (often from the federal government). The degrees themselves are barely worth the paper they are printed on, because the reputations of most of these schools are–well, let's just say they aren't good. Graduate degrees do improve your career choices, if you get them from a well-regarded institution. But when the school isn’t even ranked in the top 200, a degree isn’t going to open any doors, and it’s certainly not worth borrowing tens of thousands of dollars to get one.

The biggest borrower on the list is Walden University, whose grad students borrowed $756 million last year, according to the CAP report. Walden is owned by Laureate Education, a for-profit education company that hopes to go public next year. This seems to be a profitable enterprise, at least for its CEO. If you've never heard of Walden, join the club: it has no academic reputation to speak of. (Don't confuse Walden University with Walden College, the fictional school made famous in the Doonesbury comic strip. Garry Trudeau did poke fun at Walden U. once, in his August 2012 strip. In that strip, the president of Walden College laments that the graduation rate is so low that “it’s like we’re a for-profit school!”)
For-profit schools are taking advantage of a quirk in the law governing student loads. As Elizabeth Baylor at the Center for American Progress explains, the Higher Education Act allows graduate students to borrow much more than undergrads, up to $50,000 per year. Online, for-profit universities encourage students to borrow far more money by offering graduate degrees (what they call graduate degrees, anyway) rather than bachelor's degrees. 

I first wrote about these for-profits nearly five years ago (see “The Yugos of Higher Education”), and everything I wrote then is still true. For-profit schools continue to award “worthless degrees that leave students with a mountain of debt,” as reported on the show Frontline.

I've heard the argument from the other side: we’re offering education to people who aren’t served by mainstream universities, they say. Well, maybe that used to be true, but no more. Are you a student who just wants to learn a new skill? Today you can get high-quality education for free through Coursera or EdX, which offer courses taught by professors at the country's top universities, including my own. If you want a certificate of completion for a course, you can get it for as little as $50 at Coursera. 

If, on the other other hand, you want a degree to burnish your resume, there are thousands of small (non-profit!) colleges in cities around the country that offer equal or better training, at lower cost, than for-profit universities.

Let me try another comparison. Let’s supposed you wanted to borrow $20,000 to buy a new Mercedes. That seems reasonable, since the car itself is collateral for the loan. Now suppose instead you wanted to borrow the same $20,000, but you’re going to use it to buy an old Yugo, one of the worst cars every made. Why should anyone lend you the money for that? Yet that’s exactly what we’re doing by subsidizing loans for mediocre universities.

Could it get any worse? Well yes, actually: the 7th-largest recipient of graduate student debt, at $352 million, is Liberty University, a school founded by the fundamentalist Christian televangelist Jerry Falwell. This school doesn’t just offer a mediocre education. Instead, they mis-educate by teaching students creationism instead of evolution. They even have a Center for Creation Science to “promote and communicate a robust young-Earth creationist view of Earth history.” This is misinformation masquerading as education.

It’s too bad that for-profit universities continue to draw in students with promises of a better future, only to leave them in debt. But we don’t have to subsidize their practices. Let’s stop offering loans for degrees at online-only and for-profit schools.

California passes pro-vaccine bill, protects children

In a victory for children’s health, California passed a new law this week removing the “personal belief” exemption from the state’s vaccine requirements for children. Assuming that Governor Jerry Brown signs the bill this week–which no one is certain about–California will be transformed from a haven for anti-vaccine demagoguery to a state that protects children instead.

How this came to pass is a long tale, but the immediate impetus was the outbreak of measles in Disneyland in January–the worst outbreak in 20 years–which spread mostly through unvaccinated children. During that outbreak, we learned that in some areas of California, anti-vaccination hysteria had grown so widespread that more than half the children in some schools were unvaccinated.

And just three years ago, California had the worst whooping cough epidemic in 70 years, thanks to the anti-vaccine movement.

After the recent measles outbreak, California state Sen. Richard Pan, who is also a pediatrician, introduced SB 277 to remove personal and religious exemptions from vaccines in the state. In February, he and I were guests together on an episode of NPR's On Point with host Tom Ashbrook discussing this issue. Senator Pan spoke passionately and from direct experience about the need to protect children from disease. 

All states in the U.S. require children to be vaccinated in order to attend public schools, a policy that has been the foundation of our national effort to control infectious diseases. Under California’s current law, parents can opt out of vaccines for their children for almost any reason, simply by claiming a “personal belief” exemption. Anti-vaxxers have encouraged parents throughout the state to use this law to withhold vaccines from their children.

With this new bill, California moves back into the modern age. Without vaccinations, hundreds of thousands of children in the U.S. would get sick every year with measles, mumps, whooping cough, chicken pox, and other diseases. Thousands would die, and tens of thousands would be permanently injured. School-based vaccination policies have essentially eliminated these diseases from the U.S. in recent decades. I should add that SB 277 still allows medical exemptions, for those (rare) cases where a child has a legitimate medical reason (for example, because he/she is undergoing chemotherapy to treat cancer) to forego vaccination.

Ironically, vaccines’ very success has allowed anti-vaccine propaganda to spread. Vaccines have been so successful that most people don’t even remember the era when these diseases were a constant fear of childhood. Thus when anti-vaxxers spread (erroneous) claims that vaccines cause harm–most notoriously, that vaccines cause autism–new parents sometimes become convinced that the potential harm isn’t worth the benefit. Vaccines are safe, as the Institute of Medicine explained in a detailed report not long ago, and they are enormously beneficial.

Anti-vaxxers will continue to make extreme, and erroneous claims about vaccines. Just two months ago, the noted anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was in California campaigning against SB 277, calling vaccines a “holocaust” – perhaps the most extreme scaremongering I’ve seen on this issue. An anti-vax group called A Voice for Choice announced Thursday, after the vote, that they are “pulling out all the stops” and will try to challenge the new law in court.

Let’s hope that reason wins out–that Gov. Jerry Brown signs the bill and that California’s children are once again protected from vaccine-preventable diseases. We shouldn’t need another measles or whooping cough outbreak, or any more children dying of preventable diseases, to convince people once again that vaccines save lives.

Governor Scott Walker's attack on academic freedom in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker really doesn’t like professors. He seems to have a special grudge against the University of Wisconsin, against which he has launched a two-pronged attack this year.

It’s rare for a governor to attack the flagship university in his own state. Governors usually do just the opposite, promoting their universities to the rest of the world whenever the opportunity arises. 

What's more, Walker is currently campaigning for the Republican nomination for President. Presidential candidates usually try to make new friends and influence voters. It’s rare for a candidate to single out a large non-political group (other than foreign enemies of the United States, or other obvious bad guys) and systematically go after them.

Thus it’s surprising–startling, really–to observe how Scott Walker is waging a war on academic freedom in his home state of Wisconsin. Let's look at what he's doing, and then ask why.

First, back in January he proposed an enormous $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin’s budget, at a time when other state universities are finally recovering from the recession. Now he’s proposing to get rid of academic tenure, not only threatening faculty jobs but also destroying academic freedom for professors at the University of Wisconsin.

Walker’s attack on tenure was just endorsed by a major committee in the state legislature, which voted 12-4 to eliminate tenure from state law. The Wisconsin faculty responded that this new policy, if implemented,
“will inflict lasting damage on a highly successful institution that was built and nurtured with major investments by Wisconsin taxpayers over a period of 167 years.... It would be difficult to overstate how destructive and unnecessary the [legislature's] proposed changes to tenure and shared governance are.”
Why is Governor Scott Walker (aided by his legislature) attacking his own state’s leading university? One could hypothesize that he harbors some resentment over the fact that he himself never graduated from college: he quit school in his senior year at Marquette University. Susan Milligan at US News argues that this disqualifies him as a candidate; perhaps this criticism bothers Walker. But plenty of people succeed in demanding careers without a diploma–just look at Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

Perhaps the reason behind Walker’s dislike of academia is that he thinks that professors are too liberal. If true, this is deeply disturbing: it means he wants to stifle speech that he disagrees with. This kind of repression of scholarship is one of the most important reasons for tenure in the first place. One doesn’t have to look far–hello, Vladimir Putin?–to find examples of how powerful politicians can suppress speech, to the detriment of their societies. As UC Irvine’s Mark Levine wrote this week,
none of academia’s core functions could occur without tenure and the assurance of academic freedom it enables.”
I wrote to Governor Walker's office to ask the question above, and also to ask if he thinks his actions will weaken the University of Wisconsin. His press secretary, Laurel Patrick, didn't answer directly, but responded that 
"the Governor’s original budget proposal removed all references to the UW from state statute in order to allow for the proposed authority to create its own policies.  This would allow the UW Board of Regents to address the issue of tenure going forward."
The leaders of a national university governing board association disagreed, pointing out that under Walker's proposed new policy,
"decisions about a tenured faculty member's service could be based less on performance and institutional finances and more on the political or personal views of board members."
I’ve observed the benefits of tenure directly many times, both at Johns Hopkins University and at my previous academic home, the University of Maryland. While at UMD, for example, I wrote several articles highly critical of the university president for his boneheaded decisions about the football coach. Many of my colleagues expressed similar views to me in private, but the untenured ones were unwillingly to speak openly. If we want scholars to speak truthfully, they need to be free of fears of retribution.

Governor Walker’s actions make even less sense when viewed from outside the state, where the University of Wisconsin is considered one of the nation's top public universities (currently ranked 13th among public schools). With his draconian budget cuts and his assault on the tenure system, Walker is sending a message that professors at Wisconsin should sit down and shut up. Some of them–those most able to move, which likely includes some of their best talent–might now be looking for greener pastures elsewhere. Come to think of it, we are recruiting for 50 new endowed professorships at Hopkins, thanks to Michael Bloomberg; perhaps I should be thanking Governor Walker.

It’s disturbing that Wisconsin's governor is using his power not only to weaken one of the state's biggest assets, but also to attack the free expression of ideas. I can't come up with any explanation for his actions that doesn't appear vindictive and short-sighted. This isn’t the kind of behavior I want in any politician, and certainly not in someone who wants to be the most powerful politician in the nation.